Prague, Czech Republic – Flying from France to the Czech Republic a few years ago, I’ll always remember the striking custom of streaming the famous Vltava (or “Moldau”) symphonic poem in passengers’ ears during the landing at Prague’s Vaclav Havel airport.
Its gentle notes would remain intimately linked to the beautiful sight of Prague’s famous bridges (Legii, Chech, Jirasek, Karluv…) wonderfully delineated by the setting sun.
The second and most iconic part of Bedrich Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” (“My Fatherland”) symphonic poem cycle, “Vltava” has also spread from and drawn its magic all around the world.
If “Ma Vlast” and especially “Vltava” were intended by Smetana to reinforce the Czech nation’s patriotic feeling and indeed became a cornerstone of the Czech cultural revival movement at the end of the 19th century, it may come as a surprise that the iconic Czech melody could have originated from the Italian Renaissance song “La Mantovana”.
According to some music historians, Smetana’s “Vltava” melody could have spread from “La Mantovana” to all parts of Europe, as exemplified by its telling resemblance with various other popular melodies: from the Swedish folk song “Ack Varmeland, du skona” to its Scottish counterpart “My Mistress is prettie”, from the Polish song “Pod Krakowem” to the Flemish one “Ik zag Cecilia komen”, from Ukraine’s “Katérina Koutchéryava” to the Slovenian children song “Čuk se je oženil”.
A “wandering tune” in the words of 20th-century musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, the exact origins of Smetana’s world-famous melody remain a topic of debate among scholars.
Somewhere between Romania and Moldova, the melody was adopted by Jewish communities and served as a key inspiration for the anthem of the Zionist movement during its 1933 Congress, held in Prague, and later for “Hatikvah”, the national anthem of the state of Israel following its foundation in 1948 – complemented with lyrics from the poem “Tikvatenu” (“Our Hope”) by Naftali Herz Imber, a Jewish-Ukrainian poet having lived in Romania.
The Moldau’s extraordinary journey didn’t stop here, and we can still sense its influence meandering in different parts of Europe to this day.
To take only example, the melody was used in France by Reverend Hector Arnéra for his 1970s canticle “O prend mon âme” sung among French Catholics and Reformed communities. This canticle was, among others, performed in 2020 by famous French singer Kenji Girac. And in 2013, French singer Luc Arbogast adapted “La Moldau” in a folk-medieval style.
This travel through time and space, as well as its universal appeal and enduring popularity, appear even more impressive considering its original, nation-building purpose in the context of late 19th-century Bohemia. Intimately Czech, unequivocally European, Smetana’s “Vltava” will undoubtedly continue its marvellous journey for generations to come.
By Jacques Bellezit