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8.223272 - DVORAK: Opera Overtures and Preludes

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Opera Overtures and Preludes


Antonín Dvořák was born in 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, in Bohemia, some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should follow the example of his father and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end he left school at the age of eleven. There is no reliable record of his competence in butchery, but his musical abilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice, where he continued an apprenticeship started at home, learning German and improving his knowledge of music, rudimentary skill in which he had already acquired at home and in the village band and church. Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ School, from which he graduated two years later.

In the years that followed, Dvořák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak which was to form the nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czech operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride were performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořák resigned from the theatre orchestra, to devote more time to composition, as his music began to draw some favourable local attention. Two years later he married and early in 1874 became organist of the church of St. Adalbert. During this period he continued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a series of compositions that gradually became known to a wider circle.

Further recognition came in 1875 with the award of a Ministry of Education stipendium by a committee in Vienna that included the critic Eduard Hanslick and Brahms. The following year Dvořák failed to win the award, but was successful in 1877. His fourth application brought the personal interest of Hanslick and Brahms and a connection with Simrock, the latter’s publisher, who expressed a wish to publish the Moravian Duets and commissioned a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. These compositions won particular popularity. There were visits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever at that time have won in Vienna. The series of compositions that followed secured him an unassailable position in Czech music and a place of honour in the large world.

Early in 1891 Dvořák became professor of composition at Prague Conservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a venture which, it was hoped, would lay the foundations for American national music. The very Bohemian musical results of Dvořák’s time in America are well known. Here he wrote his Ninth Symphony, From the New World, its themes influenced, at least, by what he had heard of indigenous American Indian and Negro music, his American Quartet and a charming sonatina for violin and piano. In 1893 he returned home to his work at the Prague Conservatory, writing in the following year a series of symphonic poems and before the end of the century two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.

Dvořák is not generally thought of as a composer of opera. While his chamber and orchestral music has wide international currency, his operas have not travelled so well, or, in some cases, at all. Nevertheless he was closely involved with the development of a form inextricably associated with the rise of Czech nationalism. From 1862, the year of its opening, he was employed as principal viola in the Czech Provisional Theatre, where it was hoped to foster national Czech opera, while his wife, formerly his pupil, was a singer and member of the opera chorus. Smetana, the most significant composer of Czech opera before Dvořák, was appointed principal conductor in 1866, and exercised an obvious influence. For the opening of the theatre no Czech opera of sufficient quality could be found and the choice fell on Cherubini’s Les deux journees. It was not until 1866 that Smetana’s The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, awarded first prize in a national opera competition established in 1861, was performed. Dvořák’s addition to the national operatic repertoire was a natural response to the circumstances of his own life and to the demands and possibilities of the time. Something of the relative lack of attention accorded his operas must be attributed to the language of the libretti and the timidity of foreign opera-houses, coupled with a suspicion that they may simply be too Czech for export.

Dvořák’s first attempt at opera was with a German libretto by Theodor Korner, Alfred, on the subject of Alfred the Great and his struggle against the Danes, a topic of some oblique national relevance in Bohemia. The opera was written in 1870 and received its first performance in 1938, although the overture seemed at one time about to receive a hearing, under the title “Tragic Overture”.

1871 brought Dvořák’s first attempt at a Czech opera with the work known in English as King and Charcoal Burner, to a libretto by Bernhard Guldener, based on an old puppet play. The story concerns the visit of the king, unrecognised and lost in the forest, to the charcoal-burner’s house and the consequent jealousy of the lover of the charcoal-burner’s daughter, a feeling dispelled by the king’s invitation to visit him in his palace, where the fortunes of all are made. The opera was put into rehearsal in its first form in 1873, but withdrawn after the complaints of singers and orchestral players. In 1874, Dvořák completely rewrote the piece, following the model of Weber and Lortzing rather than Wagner, whose influence on him was waning. In this form it was given four performances at the Provisional Theatre towards the end of the year. He made additions and revisions for performances in 1881 and revised still further the libretto and music of Act Ill for performances in the summer of 1887.

Dvořák followed the second version of King and Charcoal Burner with immediate work on a second Czech opera, The Stubborn Lovers, completed just before Christmas in 1874. The one-act village comedy was not performed until 1881, when it failed to please and was withdrawn. The following year the composer turned his attention to a more ambitious project, the five-act grand opera Vanda on a story of obvious patriotic appeal. The work was given four performances in 1876 and underwent later revision. The Cunning Peasant, a two-act comic opera written in 1877, was more successful and there were additional performances in German opera-houses and in Vienna in the following years.

The opera Dimitrij is based on historical events the prelude to which, at least, is generally familiar from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a work unknown at the time to Dvořák. Here the composer had a competent libretto by a writer of some contemporary distinction, Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova. His first sketches were completed in 1881, and scoring was ready for performance in October 1882, when the piece won some success. It was later to suffer various revisions in elements of the plot and, in 1894 and 1895, more substantial reworking on Wagnerian lines. The story concerns the Russian usurper Dimitrij, proclaimed Tsar, and his love for Xenia, only surviving child of Boris Godunov, and consequent complications in his relationship with his wife, the Polish Princess Marina, who denounces her husband as a false pretender to the throne and brings about his death.

The Jacobin, with a libretto again by Marie Cervinkova, finds Dvořák nearer home again, although he had hesitated to compose such a work, expressing a preference for something like Carmen, while tempted momentarily by suggestions that he should write a German opera for Vienna. After some delay, he completed the piece in November 1888 and it was staged successfully early the following year. There were again revisions to libretto and music, the final version appearing in 1898. The story concerns the plotting of the count’s disgraced son, the Jacobin of the title, a young man of revolutionary ideals, who has been sent away by his father and has married. The young man comes back to find a cousin trying to usurp his place and with the help of the old music-master, Benda, a character in which it is supposed Dvořák recalled his old teacher in Zlonice, regains his true position as heir to his beloved father. There is a lively and idiomatic introduction to the opera, which leads to a characteristic scene set in Bohemia, with an inn on one side and the church opposite, as Bohus and his wife Julie return. The second act introduces a strongly lyrical element, while the ballet music for Act Ill has been regarded by some critics as otiose, whatever its charm.

Kate and the Devil was written in 1898 and 1899, using a libretto by Adolf Wenig, based on a folk-tale. The unlikely heroine is a talkative spinster, who succeeds in intimidating the devil Marbuel, who appears when Kate can find no dancing-partner and offers to dance with the Devil himself, should he appear. The couple dance and dance, and eventually disappear down a hole into Hell. Lucifer has sent Marbuel to look into the tyrannical behaviour of the lady of the village, whose dismissed shepherd follows to bring Kate back. In Hell, where Kate is proving troublesome, Lucifer is happy enough that the young man should take Kate away and that his former employer should be punished, but Kate sees gold and is unwilling to leave, until the young man dances her back to the world again. All ends happily enough in the third act with the repentance of the lady of the manor, the rewarding of the young shepherd and the victory of Kate over Marbuel, who flees from her in terror. The opera was first performed in Prague in 1899 and won the composer a prize of 2000 Kronen from the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Rusalka, based largely on de la Motte Fouque’s Undine, uses a new Czech libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil and is described as a three-act lyric fairy-tale. Dvořák completed the piece towards the end of November, 1900, and it was performed with considerable success at the end of March the following year. The story concerns a water-spirit, who, like Undine, falls in love with a mortal prince, with consequent and predictable complications, as the prince’s attentions wander towards a Polish princess, whom he marries. His later repentance leads to his death in the arms of his beloved Rusalka.

Dvořák’s last opera and last composition was the opera Armida, using the story from Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata that is familiar in so many other operatic settings from Lully and Handel to Gluck, Salieri and Haydn. The Czech libretto was by Jaroslav Vochlicku and had already been rejected by two or three other composers. He completed the work in August, 1903, after some eighteen months’ work, and it was poorly staged in Prague in March, 1904, achieving no particular success, although it was given seven performances. Tasso’s story is changed to allow further magic intrusion from a Syrian prince, with the destruction of Armida’s magic garden, its restoration and subsequent destruction once more. Whatever dramatic deficiencies may lie in this version of the tale, Dvořák’s music, a bid, perhaps, for acceptance as an international composer of opera, has many felicities.

Dvořák suffered the first signs of approaching illness during rehearsals for Armida. The ineffectiveness of the dress rehearsal, when the principal tenor was indisposed and the conductor apparently insensitive, caused him particular annoyance. At the postponed first performance on 28th March, 1904, he felt unwell and left the theatre early. His indisposition continued with only brief interruption until his death on 1st May.

Keith Anderson

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