About this Recording
8.572874-75 - DVOŘÁK, A.: Requiem (Libor, Wolak, Kirch, Monarcha, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Wit)

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Requiem, Op. 89


Antonín Dvořák was born in 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, in Bohemia, and some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should at first have been expected to follow the family trade, as the eldest son. His musical abilities, however, soon became apparent and were encouraged by his father, who in later years abandoned his original trade, to earn something of a living as a zither player. After primary schooling he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice and was there able to acquire the necessary knowledge of German and improve his abilities as a musician, hitherto acquired at home in the village band and in 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, where he studied for the following two years.

On leaving the Organ School, Dvořák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzák, an ensemble that was to form the nucleus of the Czech Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor at the theatre, where his operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride had already been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořák resigned from the orchestra, devoting himself more fully to composition, as his music began to attract favourable local attention. In 1873 he married a singer from the chorus of the theatre and 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, particularly with the success of his Hymnus: Dědicove bile hory (The Heirs of the White Mountain) for the Prague Hlahol Vocal Society.

Further recognition came to Dvořák in 1874, when his application for an Austrian government award brought his music to the attention of Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick in Vienna. The granting of this award for five consecutive years was of material assistance. It was through this contact that, impressed by Dvořák’s Moravian Duets entered for the award of 1877, Brahms was able to arrange for their publication by Simrock, who commissioned the Slavonic Dances, for piano duet. The success of these publications introduced Dvořák’s music to a much wider public, for which it held some exotic appeal. As his reputation grew, there were visits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than might initially have been accorded a Czech composer in Vienna.

In 1883 Dvořák had rejected a tempting proposal that he should write a German opera for Vienna. At home he continued to contribute to Czech operatic repertoire, an important element in re-establishing national musical identity. The invitation to take up a position in New York was another matter. In 1891 he had become professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and in the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, an institution that was intended to foster American music, hitherto dominated by musicians from Europe or largely trained there. Whatever the ultimate success or failure of the venture, Dvořák’s contribution was seen as that of providing a blue-print for American national music, following the example of Czech national music, which owed so much to him. There were musical results in his own work, notably in his Symphony ‘From the New World’, and chamber music of the period, works that rely strongly on the European tradition that he had inherited, while making use of melodies and rhythms that might be associated in one way or another with America. By 1895 Dvořák was home for good, resuming work at the Prague Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. His final works included a series of symphonic poems and two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.

In 1884 Dvořák visited England for the first time, conducting there his Stabat Mater. A second invitation took him back to England, to Worcester, in the autumn, when the Stabat Mater was heard again. 1885 brought a third visit to London and his connection with England continued, particularly in works that were well suited to the flourishing traditions of choral music there. It was, however, the Requiem, written in 1890 and first performed in Birmingham the following year, that matched the success of the Stabat Mater.

The Requiem opens with a setting of the Introit [CD 1 [1]] which is to be combined with a very short Kyrie. The cellos start the work with a motif that is to recur. The chorus sings the words of the Introit at first softly, mounting to a climax for Te decet hymnus, words repeated by the solo tenor. The plea of the chorus for their words to be heard is followed by the same prayer from the soprano and alto soloists, Exaudi orationem meam, then joined by the tenor and bass. Through the solemn prayers of the chorus come shafts of light at Lux perpetua luceat eis, as harmonies shift, leading from the minor to the tonic major of B flat, as the Christe eleison is sung by the choir, with divided tenors and basses darkening the timbre of the choral writing. The opening motif returns in the Gradual [CD 1 [2]], for solo soprano and chorus, now at a higher pitch and accompanied by the sopranos and altos. Divided tenors and basses end the movement, with a final hushed G major.

The Sequence [CD 1 [3]], the doom-laden prophecy of terror to come, has invited composers to a dramatic treatment of the text. Dvořák set the first two stanzas of the poem as a fierce, four-square march. The Tuba mirum [CD 1 [4]] starts with a trumpet triple declaration of the motif, rising a semitone each time, before the entry of the alto soloist, followed by the men’s voices, now in E major. The bass soloist continues with the next stanza, followed by the chorus. The tenor soloist adds a modal Liber scriptus, the final words echoed by the basses before an outburst of sound as the Dies irae returns, leading to the return of the Last Trump with a fortissimo Tuba mirum and an abbreviated version of the text, pianissimo, from the men’s voices of the chorus. Horns introduce Quid sum miser [CD 1 [5]], the divided sopranos followed by the soprano soloist, the questions of the text repeated by the men’s voices, then joined by the tenor and bass soloists. All four soloists are heard in the setting of Rex tremendae majestatis, with echoes, as in the Tuba mirum, of Mozart’s setting of these texts. There is a short fugal section, and the chorus leads to a final hushed plea, Salva me, fons pietatis. The D major Recordare, Jesu pie [CD 1 [6]] is scored for the four soloists in a persuasively beautiful setting. The following Confutatis maledictis [CD 1 [7]] calls down vengeance on sinners in terms recalling Verdi’s Dies irae, mollified by the succeeding plea for salvation, soon overwhelmed by the return of the opening condemnation, although this movement ends in triumph. The bass soloist introduces the Lacrimosa [CD 1 [8]], joined by the alto soloist in the next stanza. The words of the Lacrimosa are repeated dramatically by the tenor soloist, continuing with the solo soprano, with the four soloists adding heightened feeling to the final petition for rest, echoed by the chorus.

The F major Offertory [CD 2 [1]] brings together the four soloists and chorus, culminating in what must seem an obligatory fugal setting of Quam olim Abrahae promisisti. Horns introduce the bass soloist, and the alto soloist sings the continuing words of the Offertory, Hostias et preces tibi, Domine laudis offerimus [CD 2 [2]], to be joined by solo soprano, followed by the bass and tenor. Eventually the fugal setting of Quam olim Abrahae promisisti returns.

The bass soloist ushers in the Sanctus [CD 2 [3]], echoed by a reduced alto section of the chorus. The tenor follows, then the solo soprano, followed by the chorus. The voice of the solo soprano soars above the chorus at Pleni sunt caeli, continuing with the four soloists and chorus. There is a shift of key for the Benedictus, the chorus and solo tenor joined by solo soprano and solo alto. The gentle setting of Pie Jesu, Domine [CD 2 [4]], words inserted from the end of the Sequence, is entrusted first to the chorus, followed by the upper three solo voices.

The key changes again for the Agnus Dei [CD 2 [5]], which, as so often elsewhere in the Requiem, recalls again the opening motif. The solo tenor leads the petition, followed by the chorus, with the plea then taken up by the solo soprano and then the chorus, with the vocal forces variously deployed, in a setting of the texts of the Agnus Dei and of the Communion words, Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, Let eternal light shine upon them. The chorus sings this final petition in B flat major, answered by the orchestra which, with the pervasive motif, returns briefly to the minor key in which the work had begun.

Keith Anderson

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