The Hearing Light series explores how composers portray light through music. Today we’re examining Vltava, or more commonly known as The Moldau, by Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). Smetana was a Czech composer who is often regarded as the father of Czech music. Vltava is the most famous movement of his symphonic suite called Má Vlast (My Country) and often performed by itself.
The piece takes us on a journey down the Vltava river. The river is conceived from two small mountain streams which gradually build into a mighty flowing current. Along the way, the listener encounters triumphant hunters, a folk wedding, a gorge where, according to legend, water nymphs bathe in the moonlight, and the St. John’s Rapids before finally arriving to Prague.
I particularly love how Smetana portrayed the moonlight glistening atop the gently flowing river. Let’s take a moment to listen to the excerpt, 6:00-8:40.
What did you think? Did you hear the moonlight on the river?! The violins are the magical ingredient here. They shimmer in a high register on the E string (which only violins can do!), muted and at a pianissimo dynamic marking (very soft) with long sustained notes above the quiet undulating current of the river represented by the flute, clarinet and harp. The horn part reminds us that the river is still mighty, even in the calm night air.
Are there other pieces of music that sound like moonlight? How did the composer achieve it? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
I encourage you to listen to Vltava in its entirety; it’s one of my favorites!