The first book of Czech Dances was written in 1877 when Smetana had already realized his deafness was incurable. It contains four polkas, which are undisputedly the best among his many polkas. The polka being to Smetana what the Mazurka and Polonaise were to Chopin, he elevated the genre to a real art form. These are full of spirit and expression, ranging from gentle introspection to exuberant virtuosity (the F major polka is one of the most demanding of Smetana's piano works).
The second book was written two years later, in 1779, and were inspired by Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, but with the explicit intention to be more specifically Czech. Hence the use of authentic tunes and dance forms (taken from The Collection of National Folk-Tunes and Rhymes by Erben) and Czech names. Smetana, being a lover of the dance, even consulted old violinist, an expert on old Czech dances, to learn about their exact steps and rhythmical specialities.
These ten dances are Smetana's best piano works, full of catchy melodies, vivacious rhythms, elaborate counterpoint, and an almost orchestral sound and Lisztian technique. The dances are ordered in pairs of contrasing tempo and dance type. A brief desciption of each dance follows.
Furiant (Peasant Dance). The Furiant is one of the most famous Czech dances, an exciting, stamping dance beloved by Smetana and Dvorak alike. This one is a riot of sound, presented with Lisztian grandeur.
Slepicka (Little Hen). This frisky polka, with a brilliant middle section, is based on a theme that alternates the rhythm, in a typical Czech manner, between 2/4 and 3/8.
Oves (The Oats; Grain Dance). This peaceful tune begins a group of four men's dances.
Medved (Bear Dance). One of the most remarkable from the set, with heavy sound, changing meters and a remarkable middle section where a wonderful Slavic melody is accompanied by an imitation of Czech bagpipes.
Cibulicka (Little Onion). A dance in 3/4, based on the popular Czech folksong "Hop Hey Onioners". Accents and inner voicing present a challenge to the performer. The secondary theme, not authentic but by Smetana himself, returns at the end in a faster and heavier arrangement, providding an impressive climax.
Dupak (Stamping Dance). This wild romp is probably the most difficult of the whole cycle, using many virtuoso devices like repeated notes, quick jumps and original, heavily modulating passages.
Hulan (Lancer). Despite the name, a tender women's dance, depicting a girl longing for her soldier lover. This is one of the most popular of the whole cycle.
Obkrocak (Stepping dance). Another women's dance, but in contrasting duple meter in duple meter it is sharp, lively, accentuated and outstandingly virtuosic.
Sousedska (Neighbours Dance). This is a group dance, moderate and noble.
Skocna (Hop Dance). Another group dance, in duple meter and the fastest from the set. Its unabashed virtuosity creates a joyful ending to the cycle.
|2||Polka in A minor||2:42||Pohl, R.|
|2||Slepicka (Little Hen)||3:05||Pohl, R.|
|5||Cibulicka (Little Onion)||4:53||Pohl, R.|