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A Deal Undone: Smetana's 'The Bartered Bride'

Bedrich Smetana wrote music so clearly rooted in his Czech homeland that it would be easy to define him -- narrowly -- as a musical nationalist. But in fact, his achievement goes far deeper than that.

There are plenty of composers whose music provokes waves of national pride when it's played in their homelands but fails to strike the same inspirational chords when it crosses international borders.

Think of John Philip Sousa for example. At home in America, marches such as "The Stars and Stripes Forever" stir deep, patriotic sentiment. Overseas, those same pieces may seem little more than rousing diversions.

Yet, among the many composers whose work is plainly inspired by national traditions, there are a few who also belong to a more exclusive club -- those whose music has deep meaning in their home countries, but has also achieved an undeniable, worldwide appeal.

In America, Aaron Copland wrote music like that. The brash, wide open sound of works like Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid seems to flow in the blood of American listeners, yet his music has also earned a place in concert halls around the world. From England, the music of Edward Elgar has crossed continents and oceans, but retains an ineffably British nature that has given him a truly special place among his countrymen.

Many other nations can also boast of "favorite sons" whose music has achieved widespread fame -- but few have been as musically blessed as the Czech Republic. Leos Janacek wrote a body of internationally acclaimed operas whose music seems inseparable from the rhythms and inflections of the Czech language itself. Antonin Dvorak wrote some of the world's most popular symphonies, yet even the one called the "New World" is unmistakably bound to Czech musical traditions.

Still, both Dvorak and Janacek owe a clear debt to Smetana, who may have done more than any other composer to establish Czech music both at home and abroad.

Smetana is known to much of the world as the composer of The Moldau, the famous tone poem from his sprawling, orchestral suite called Ma Vlast, or My Country. But Smetana's operas are what truly established him as a founding father of Czech, classical music -- and his brilliant comedy The Bartered Bride has become a mainstay in opera houses around the world.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Smetana's lighthearted masterwork in a performance from Prague, the city where the opera was premiered in 1866. The production, led by conductor Ondrej Lenard, features soprano Pavla Vykopalova as Marenka and tenor Pavel Cernoch as Jeník.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

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Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.