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8.550598 - DVORAK: Symphonic Poems

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1903)
Symphonic Poems
The Noon Witch (Polednice / Die Mittagshexe / La fée de midi), Op. 108
The Golden Spinning-Wheel (Zlatý kolovrat / Das goldene Spinnrad Le rouet d'or), Op. 109
The Wild Dove (Holoubek / Die Waldtaube / La colombe), Op. 110


Antonín Dvořák must be considered the greatest of the Czech nationalist composers of the later nineteenth century, and he continues to enjoy the widest international popularity. His achievement was to bring together music that derived its inspiration from Bohemia 's woods and fields with the classical traditions continued by Brahms in Vienna, at the same time establishing a distinctively Czech musical idiom and suggesting the future development of music stemming from what had long been a rich source of musical inspiration within the Habsburg Empire.

Dvořák was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where his father combined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that his son would later follow. As a child he played in his father's village band, his early training as a violinist in the hands of the village schoolmaster. Schooling in Zlonice, where he was sent at the age of twelve, lodging with an uncle, allowed instruction in the rudiments of music from Antonin Liehmann. Two years later he was sent to Kamenice to learn German, but the following year the needs of his family made it necessary for him to return to Zlonice, where his parents had now settled, to help in the butcher's shop. Liehmann continued his lessons and persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague. In 1857 he entered the Prague Organ School, where he was able to remain for two years.

Dvořák at first earned his living in Prague playing the viola in a band led by Karel Komsák, which was later to form part of the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre, established in 1862. He was to become principal viola-player and to continue as an orchestral player for the next nine years, for some time under the direction of Smetana, who exercised considerable influence on Dvořák's parallel work as a composer. In 1871 he found himself able to resign from the orchestra and to marry. He took a position as organist at the church of St. Adalbert, taught a few pupils and otherwise devoted himself to composition. It was through the encouragement of Brahms, four years later, that his music was brought gradually to the attention of a much wider public. In particular Brahms was able to persuade Simrock to publish Dvorak's vocal Moravian Duets. Their success was followed by the publisher's request for further music of this kind, resulting in the first series of Slavonic Dances, Opus 46, composed for piano duet, but orchestrated at the same time by the composer. The same year, 1878, saw the composition of the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Opus 45.

From this time onwards Dvořák's fame was to grow and he was to win particular popularity in Germany and in England, visiting the latter country on several occasions and fulfilling commissions for choral works for Birmingham and Leeds. In 1891 he was appointed professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and the following year accepted an invitation to go to New York as director of the new National Conservatory. The period in America gave rise to one of his best known works, the Symphony No. 9, "From the New World ". By 1895 he was back again in Prague, teaching at the Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. He died two years later.

Dvořák was a prolific composer for the orchestra and his nine symphonies form an essential part of symphonic repertoire, although the overwhelming popularity of the last, "From the New World ", has tended to distract attention from the earlier symphonies. The group of symphonic poems written in 1896 and 1897 are of particular interest, coming as they do three years after the last symphony and exhibiting a musical language based to some extent on the intonations of speech and generally associated therefore rather with the work of Mussorgsky and Janácek. These compositions in any case represent a departure into territory more familiar from Liszt or Richard Strauss in their use of extra-musical elements.

Four of the five symphonic poems of Dvořák are based on poems by Karel Jaromír Erben, a collection of ballads published under the collective title of The Garland. The second of the set, The Noon Witch, has a very precise programme, outlined in the composer's correspondence. In the opening bars a child plays quietly, turning his attention to a toy cockerel, while his mother prepares dinner. She is cross with the child, who cries. His mother then becomes angrier still and scolds her son, threatening him with the noon witch, whose maleficent activities are confined to the hours between eleven o'clock and midday. The child grows calmer, as the scene is repeated. In what is the equivalent of a slow movement the noon witch, small, brown and wild in look, with a sheet drawn over her head, slowly opens the door and approaches the mother, this represented by bass clarinet and muted strings, followed by the witch motif from bassoon and bass clarinet. In livelier music from horns and trombones the witch demands the child, but the mother in desperation holds the child to her, while the witch tries to seize him. An Allegro, with piccolo, flute and oboe, describes the witch, as she dances round. The mother screams and almost dead and scarcely breathing collapses. At this point the noontide bell is heard, deterring the witch. In the following Andante the father of the family prays, not knowing what has happened. He opens the door of his house and comes in to find his wife lying without sign of life. He tries to revive her and she starts to breathe again. He becomes more agitated, more particularly when he finds his child dead. In the final bars the witch vanishes.

The Wild Dove, the fourth of the symphonic poems, opens with a funeral march. A young widow follows the coffin of her dead husband. In a following Allegro a cheerful and handsome young man meets and comforts her, persuading her to forget her grief and accept him as her husband. She agrees and the wedding is duly celebrated. From the branches of a green oak-tree over her husband's grave, the mournful cooing of a wild dove is heard, piercing the woman's heart and bringing a feeling of remorse, since she had poisoned her husband, a crime of which there has already been a hint in the opening of the work. Conscience drives her mad and she drowns herself. The last section of the work provides an Epilogue.

The third of the group, The Golden Spinning-Wheel, tells a more complicated fairy-story, in the form of a free rondo. A young king riding out to hunt stops at a cottage to ask for water. He sees Domicka, who brings him what he wants, before resuming her spinning. The king tells her he loves her and hears that she is waiting for her step-mother. Later he returns and tells the ugly old step-mother to bring Domicka to his castle. The old woman sets out with Domicka and with her own daughter but in the forest they cut oft Domicka's hands and feet and put out her eyes, and take these severed members with them to the king's castle, leaving her body behind. The king comes out to meet them and mistaking the other girl for Domicka, whom she closely resembles, marries her. A week later he must go to the war and bids his wife spin until his return. Meanwhile a mysterious old man has found Domicka's body, and sends a boy to the castle to demand her feet in return for a golden spinning-wheel, and then her hands in return for a golden distaff, and a third time her eyes in return for a golden spindle. Now the old man uses magic water to join together again the dismembered girl and bring her to life. When the king returns victoriously, he asks his wife to spin for him, and as she does so the spinning-wheel reveals the woman's crime. Hurrying to the forest, the king finds Domicka and returns with her to the castle. Here the symphonic poem ends. Erben himself had settled matters more definitively. In his ballad the wicked step-mother and her daughter are torn in pieces by wolves and the golden spinning-wheel disappears.

Keith Anderson


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