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8.220420 - DVORAK: Rhapsody Op. 14 / Overtures

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Rhapsody (Symphonic Poem), Op. 14 • Overture to Selma Sediak, Op. 37 • Tragic Overture (Dramatic Overture), Op. 1


The Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák succeeded in achieving a remarkable synthesis between national elements and traditional classical principles in music preserving always a distinctly Czech idiom that won approval too in the Vienna of Brahms and the critic Hanslick, both his strong advocates.

Dvořák was born in 1841, the son of a village butcher and inn-keeper in Nelahozeves near Kralup, in what is now Czechoslovakia. As a child he sang in the village church choir and played the violin in his father’s village band, later studying music more formally at school in Zloniče and, from 1855, in Kameniče, where he was sent to learn German. It was through his teacher at the former school that he was able to escape working for his father and to become a pupil at the Prague Organ School in 1857. Two years later lack of money brought an end to this, and he began to earn his living as a viola-player in a band run by Karel Komzak, an ensemble that was to become part of the National Provisional Theatre Orchestra in 1862, from 1866 under the direction of Smetana.

In 1873 Dvořák, who had by this time written a number of works, including two not completely satisfactory three-act operas, resigned from his position in the orchestra to become organist at St. Adalbert’s in Prague and to marry a singer from the chorus of the opera, a change that allowed him much more time for composition. The encouragement of Brahms and Hanslick and an introduction to the publisher Simrock brought wider recognition and a career that was to win distinction abroad, particularly in England and in America, where in 1892, he became director of the National Conservatory in New York. In 1895 he returned permanently to his position at the Conservatory in Prague, of which he became director in 1901.

The Rhapsody in A minor, variously numbered Opus 14, 15, 18 or 19, was conceived as a symphonic poem, a title sometimes bears, on the model of Smetana’s Vyšehrad, with a nod towards the form of the symphonic poem developed by Liszt. The work was completed in the autumn of 1874 and published posthumously in 1912. In order of composition it follows the fourth of Dvořák’s nine symphonies and the first half dozen of his fourteen string quartets, and is by no means the work of a novice. The Rhapsody, overtly nationalist in melodic content, shows a firm handling of the orchestra in a form that is occasionally inclined to the episodic.

1874 had brought Dvořák the award of the Austrian State Stipendium, for which he had applied during the summer to the Vienna committee that included Brahms and Hanslick. It was perhaps the official success that led him to attempt the composition of the five-act opera Vanda, completed towards the end of 1875 and performed at the National Provisional Theatre the following year. The opera, which deals with the life of a pagan Polish princess who swears to sacrifice her life if the Poles defeat a German invasion, has an obvious national relevance, while Vanda herself boasts a relationship with Libus, heroine of Smetana’s opera of that name written three years before. The overture was written in 1879 for a later production and uses themes from the opera associated with the sorceress Homena, and Slavoj, Vanda’s lover, as well as a third melody of clear Slavonic provenance.

The opera Selma Sedlak, generally known in English as The Cunning Peasant and in German as Der Bauer ein Schelm, was completed in July 1877 and performed in Prague in January the following year. Using a libretto by the medical student J.O. Vesely, “a not untalented but megalomaniac young man”, the opera has been described by the same writer as “a mixture of The Marriage of Figaro and the The Bartered Bride”, and deals with the machinations of the cunning peasant Martin and his attempts to marry his daughter to Vaclav. The piece was successful in Prague and was the first opera of Dvořák to be performed outside Prague, only to fail signally in Vienna, while enjoying some success elsewhere.

The Tragic Overture (“Dramatic Overture”) was completed in 1870 and designed as an overture to Dvořák first opera, Alfred, with a German libretto after Karl Theodor Körner, a young writer killed at the age of 22 in the Napoleonic Wars. The plot, which concerns the national struggles in Britain between Saxons and Danes, had some relevance to the national aspirations of Czechs at the time of its composition. The work was not performed in the composer’s life time, although the overture, under the title of Tragic Overture, was revised for performances in 1881 for the Academy of Czech Journalists. In the end Dvořák decided to substitute in its place the Third Slavonic Rhapsody.

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