While it is often presented as a single work in six movements and – with the exception of Vltava – is almost always recorded that way, the six pieces were conceived as individual works. They had their own separate premieres between 1875 and 1880; the premiere of the complete set took place on 5 November 1882 in Prague, under Adolf Čech, who had also conducted two of the individual premieres.
In these works Smetana combined the symphonic poem form pioneered by Franz Liszt with the ideals of nationalistic music which were current in the late nineteenth century. Each poem depicts some aspect of the countryside, history, or legends of Bohemia.
Vltava, also known by its German name Die Moldau (or The Moldau), was composed between 20 November and 8 December 1874 and was premiered on 4 April 1875 under Adolf Čech. It is about 12 minutes long, and is in the key of E minor.
In this piece, Smetana uses tone painting to evoke the sounds of one of Bohemia's great rivers. In his own words:
The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe (or Elbe, in German).
The piece contains Smetana's most famous tune. It is an adaptation of the melody La Mantovana, attributed to the Italian renaissance tenor Giuseppe Cenci (also known as Giuseppino), which, in a borrowed Moldovan form, was also the basis for the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. The tune also appears in major in an old folk Czech song Kočka leze dírou ("The Cat Crawls Through the Hole"), and Hanns Eisler used it for his "Song of the Moldau".