Bedřich Smetana and the High E of Doom

Emi Ferguson

This Composer is Sick, Ep 3 - Bedrich Smetana and the High E of Doom

John Schaefer: I'm John Schaefer, and you're listening to the Artist Propulsion Lab podcast. Today, flute-player Emi Ferguson continues "This Composer is Sick," exploring the impact of syphilis on classical composers. This week, she explores the Czech composer Smetana - the man, his music, and the myths that have come up around him. 

EMI: This is the final movement from the first string quartet of Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. Smetana titled this quartet "From My Own Life." with each movement representing a moment from his life. And if you listen closely, you may notice the music takes a hard left turn – 

– with the appearance of a really high note.

Smetana - Quartet No. 1 - High E from the Fourth Movement 

What just happened? Well, for once, we actually know pretty conclusively. This moment, that high E in the violin - was Smetana’s musical recreation of the ringing he heard in his ears - tinnitus - that later developed into complete deafness. 

But where did that tinnitus come from? There's more than one way to develop tinnitus. And in Smetana’s case, it was probably syphilis. But it's complicated, especially when you get into the layers of mythmaking, marketing, and manipulation that have built up around him.

Helping us peel back these layers, is musicologist, Dr. Kelly St. Pierre, 

Kelly St. Pierre: An associate professor of musicology at Wichita State University. I’m also part of a project at Charles University in Prague. So two full-time jobs in two places, it’s a nice problem to have.

EMI: Also, re-joining us is Dr. Sheila Lukehart, our resident syphilis expert, who remembers the first time she saw the corkscrew-shaped bacteria that causes syphilis

Sheila Lukehart: The first day I was in the laboratory, they called me over and said, “do you wanna see T. Pallidum?” And I said, “Sure!”

Smetana, the Man

EMI: As we encountered with Franz Schubert in our last episode, 19th-century medical history is hard. But in the case of that high E from Smetana’s string quartet, “From My Own Life,” we know from Smetana himself that he was writing his own medical symptoms into his work.

Kelly St. Pierre: We do still have a letter he wrote to a friend that said, “Hey, this high E is the sustained whistle I keep hearing.”

EMI: Sometime in 1874, Smetana experienced what were likely the symptoms of primary or secondary syphilis, and as a reminder, primary syphilis manifests as a lesion, called a chancre, and secondary syphilis usually looks like a rash on the torso. But also…

Sheila Lukehart: During the secondary stage or shortly after the secondary stage, because T. Pallidum has been disseminating throughout the body, through the bloodstream, it can get into other places.

EMI: In Smetana’s case, it also manifested as tinnitus, and eventually complete hearing loss. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hearing loss and tinnitus can both be among the first symptoms of syphilis.

Sheila Lukehart: You can have some hearing loss, which is temporary if you're treated promptly or can be more permanent.

EMI: That seems to be exactly what happened to Smetana. He first started experiencing tinnitus in 1874, probably not long after he contracted the disease.

Kelly St. Pierre: By the end of 1874, he actually resigned from his position as a conductor of the Provisional Theatre, because he couldn't hear well enough to keep doing his job, he said. So apparently for him it went very quickly, once he first saw the first signs. 

EMI: Unfortunately for Smetana, we don’t think he linked the hearing loss with his other earlier syphilis symptoms.

Kelly St. Pierre: It's hard to know what he did to treat his first blisters and sores,

EMI: These would have been either the chancre from the primary stage, or the rash that is the symptom of secondary syphilis.

Kelly St. Pierre: But it doesn't seem like he put those two symptoms together. He went to be treated for the hearing loss to several different kinds of doctors. They didn't diagnose him with syphilis.

EMI: So we know that his symptoms started in 1874, but we don't know exactly when. 

Kelly St. Pierre: Smetana's health after 1874 becomes more and more problematic. He keeps going for all of these treatments, there are special benefit concerts in his honor to help him get the funding to go try the treatments. He's told to get to the countryside and rest his hearing. He moves out of the city.

EMI: He composes the string quartet "From My Own Life" in 1876, and by this time he was completely deaf. His doctors would tell him to cease all musical activities to aid his recovery.

Kelly St. Pierre: He still keeps in close contact with the theatre, and keeps composing. But he ends up moving in with his daughter towards the end of his life in a space, even further out in the country. And eventually just his health declines so much that she eventually takes him to an asylum

EMI: Smetana was likely experiencing symptoms of tertiary syphilis – neurosyphilis to be specific, and this can look like depression, personality changes, dementia, or to put it the 19th century way, madness.

Kelly St. Pierre: The progression was swift once Smetana arrived at the asylum.

EMI: Smetana died there only weeks later in 1884 at the age of 60, 10 years after his first symptoms of syphilis. 

And that dear listener, may be the end of Smetana the man, but it's very much the beginning of Smetana the myth. 

Smetana, the Myth

EMI: Smetana is a Czech national hero, and he is so mythologized that it's tough to see where the facts of his life end and the myths begin.

Kelly St. Pierre: He became the national symbol of what it means to be Czech at a specific time when the idea of what it is to be Czech was being invented.

EMI: Now Central European history gets complicated quickly. What's important to know is that when Smetana was alive, there was no "Czech" nation, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. And a lot of Czechs at this time, including Smetana, didn't speak Czech very well. Instead, they spoke German. But there was a passionate Czech nationalist movement

Kelly St. Pierre: of which Smetana was a huge part and in some ways helped lead. Uh, made him into the national symbol that he became. So he's both the composer and a national symbol.

EMI: He was so culturally important, that you could basically call him the Czech Beethoven. And, like Beethoven, Smetana’s deafness has become part of his mythology.

Kelly St. Pierre: Just like Beethoven they love the romantic idea of a composer having to overcome the one Achilles heel that he has to save the nation. So they want to know exactly when he started experiencing this hearing loss but they don't want to acknowledge that it could have been part of an STI.

EMI: The mythmaking starts with Smetana himself. 

Kelly St. Pierre: When Smetana was working in the 1860s through 1880s, he organized a propaganda circle around himself to promote himself. Today we might just call it marketing. They're a marketing team. They're gonna spin things in a way that makes sense for them and their goals.

EMI: Unfortunately for scholars and music lovers, Smetana's story has become a victim of his own marketing success. Since his death, there has been massaging of dates - like when he started going deaf, or when he wrote some of his most famous works. 

Kelly St. Pierre: A lot of people have tried to tamper with those dates to make it more convenient to the myth and they've always changed that story as to when he first started experiencing those symptoms to align with when he chose to compose the nation's so-called greatest works. 

EMI: Like his iconic, “Ma Vlast,” or “My Country.” which you’ve been hearing snippets of throughout the episode.

Music - “The Moldau,” from Ma Vlast

Kelly St. Pierre: So for that reason, even if Smetana wrote in his diary, that he started this piece on this day. researchers will say, ah, but he experienced the onset of deafness on this other day, so they'll try to correct Smetana’s own recording of his own chronology so that it better suits their narrative of his tragic deafness.

EMI: And then, there's outright document destruction, which certainly happened to the records of other syphilis patients after they died.

Sheila Lukehart: After people died of syphilis records would be destroyed by the family afterwards.

EMI: But the case of Smetana is particularly striking, since more than syphilis, and more than Smetana - this was about Czech national identity.

Kelly St. Pierre: There's a long tradition in Czech scholarship around Smetana to edit his letters and destroy evidence and change the information to keep just enough of it there that it still could be called a fact.

EMI: For example Smetana, like many Czechs at the time, had grown up speaking German. His Czech was bad. 

Kelly St. Pierre: We know some of his letters have been burned to do with how poorly he spoke Czech and would usually speak German. The best example or most well known, recognized example of changing Smetana's documents to improve his Czech are actually, they were done by a librettist of his named Eliška Krásnohorská, but she chose the letters of his that made him sound more German and just burned them. They're just gone. We don't even know what she burned. Right. We don't know what's missing. But we did learn that it was because of his bad grammar.

EMI: After World War II, Smetana gets swept up into the Cold War. The man who became the minister of education and propaganda in communist Czechoslovakia was a Smetana scholar.

Kelly St. Pierre: So he was responsible for designing the education program under communism.

And of course, he's gonna put Smetana in the center of that. That's what he knows. He also creates the first Smetana museum, 

EMI: This museum actually sits on the Moldau which is the river that inspired the second movement of Má Vlast.

Kelly St. Pierre: Which if you're familiar with Má vlast, the Smetana museum, of course has to be right on the Vltava on the Moldau, in the center of the city. So there's this whole reinvention of Smetana under communism. So his primary sources have always been invented and reinvented time and time again, to suit the needs of whoever is trying to research about him at the time

EMI: After all this back and forth over what Smetana means, the myth has overtaken the man. These days, at least in the Czech Republic, he's used as kind of a punchline.

Kelly St. Pierre: It's almost like he was forced to be such a huge national hero under communism. He became the butt of jokes. Um, he's in pop songs as like a symbol of a curmudgeonly old man of the great times of the past. He's more of a myth or at least as much of a myth as he was a composer.

EMI: We actually found a beer commercial starring Smetana, and over 30 covers of the Moldau in almost every conceivable musical genre, which you can see and hear on the episode webpage.

Music - Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 - Finale

EMI: So, because Smetana became such a major symbol of Czech identity, and because no one wants to believe their national hero died of syphilis, there are people who have contested his diagnosis.  So he’s been dug up… more than once…

Kelly St. Pierre: He was exhumed like all the cool kids.

EMI: In 1925, researchers opened up Smetana’s tomb in the national cemetery in Prague. And they performed all sorts of tests on his body. You'd think that that would lead to an answer… but you'd be thinking incorrectly. The 1925 tests were inconclusive. Researchers dug him up again, in 1987, and found antibodies that pointed to syphilis. But even as recently as 2009, scholars were still arguing about his diagnosis.

Kelly St. Pierre: Learning about Smetana and like how he died is a huge exercise in confirmation bias. If they go in to test the heart, they'll find a problem with the heart. If they go in to test the skull, they'll find a problem with the skull.

And they all had different answers… and his brain is gone.

EMI: What happened to Smetana's brain?

Kelly St. Pierre: We don't know where Smetana's brain is, and for all the times he’s been exhumed, it would've had to have been taken in 1925 because it was missing by World War II. I don't know exactly how this happened. It's not clear to me. It is empirically bizarre though.

EMI: Even if someone tracks down Smetana’s brain, there probably will still be some contesting of his syphilis diagnosis. Until then, we’re left with suppressed, destroyed, or disputed evidence, a missing brain… and one high E.

Transition - High E from Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1

EMI: Next time, It's the last episode of This Composer is Sick. For our finale, we'll look at the life and death of Scott Joplin. If you’re concerned you have a sexually transmitted infection, go to a nearby sexual health clinic. We’ve got a link to clinics here in the city on the episode webpage. I’m Emi Ferguson, thanks for listening!

John Schaefer: This episode was produced by Emi Ferguson and Max Fine. Matt Frassica is our editor. Additional production assistance by Jade Jiang, Hanako Yamaguchi, Laura Boyman, and Neva Derewetzky. I'm John Schaefer. See you next time.


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