DVORAK: A Hero's Song / Czech Suite / Hussite Overture (Antoni Wit/ Beata Jankowska/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553005)
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Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)
A Hero's Song (Pisen Bohat?¢rska), Op. 111
Czech Suite (Ceska Suita), Op. 39
Hussite Overture (Husitska), Op. 67
Festival March (Slavnosti Pochod), Op. 54
Antonin Dvorak must be considered the greatest of the Czechnationalist composers of the later nineteenth century, and he continues to enjoy thewidest international popularity. His achievement was to bring together music that derivedits inspiration from Bohemia's woods and fields with the classical traditions continued byBrahms in Vienna, at the same time establishing a distinctively Czech musical idiom andsuggesting the future development of music stemming from what had long been a rich sourceof musical inspiration within the Habsburg Empire.
Dvorak was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where hisfather combined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that his sonwould later follow. As a child he played in his father's village band, his early trainingas a violinist in the hands of the village schoolmaster. Schooling in Zlonice, where hewas sent at the age of twelve, lodging with an uncle, allowed instruction in the rudimentsof 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 toZlonice, where his parents had now settled, to help in the butcher's shop. Liehmanncontinued his lessons and persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague. In 1857 heentered the Prague Organ School, where he was able to remain for two years.
Dvorak at first earned his living in Prague playing the violain a band led by Karel Komsak, which was later to form part of the orchestra of theProvisional Theatre, established in 1862. He was to become principal viola-player and tocontinue as an orchestral player for the next nine years, for some time under thedirection of Smetana, who exercised considerable influence on Dvorak's parallel work as acomposer. In 1871 he found himself able to resign from the orchestra and to marry. He tooka position as organist at the church of St. Adalbert, taught a few pupils and otherwisedevoted himself to composition. It was through the encouragement of Brahms, four yearslater, that his music was brought gradually to the attention of a much wider public. Inparticular 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, butorchestrated at the same time by the composer. The same year, 1878, saw the composition ofthe three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Opus 45.
From this time onwards Dvorak 's fame was to grow and he wasto win particular popularity in Germany and in England, visiting the latter country onseveral occasions and fulfilling commissions for choral works for Birmingham and Leeds. In1891 he was appointed professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and the followingyear accepted an invitation to go to New York as director of the new NationalConservatory. The period in America gave rise to one of his best known works, the Symphony"From the New World". By 1895 he was back again in Prague, teaching at theConservatory, of which he became director in 1901. He died two years later.
Dvorak was a prolific composer for the orchestra and his ninesymphonies form an essential part of symphonic repertoire, although the overwhelmingpopularity of the last, "From the New World", has tended to distract attentionfrom the earlier symphonies. The group of symphonic poems written in 1896 and 1897 are ofparticular interest, coming as they do three years after the last symphony and exhibitinga musical language based to some extent on the intonations of speech and generallyassociated therefore rather with the work of Mussorgsky and Janacek. These compositionsin any case represent a departure into territory more familiar from Liszt or RichardStrauss in their use of extra-musical elements.
A Hero's Song (Pisen Bohat?¢rska)was written in 1897, after the symphonic poems based on the literary work of Erben. Dvorakstarted work on the new symphonic poem on 4th August and three weeks later had completedthe sketch of the whole work, which was completed in score on 25th October. It was firstperformed in Vienna under Mahler on 4th December 1898. It was apparently the composer'sintention, perhaps autobiographical, to suggest the progress of a spiritual hero, startingout with courage to conquer, but then deterred by disappointments and despondence. Hopereturns in a festive hymn, to which Nature adds encouragement, leading to a final song ofvictory. The work is scored for the usual full orchestra of the period, includingtriangle, cymbals and bass drum in its percussion section..
The opening, marked Allegro con fuoco introduces a strong figure in thelower strings, answered by horn and trumpet, joined by the violins. This leads to apassage marked Poco adagio, lacrimoso in a minor key, that returns to the major and theoriginal mood before modulating to a gentler Allegretto grazioso. This in turn leads tomusic of greater excitement, an Allegro con fuoco now in B flat minor and a major Moltovivace, increasing in speed and excitement to a grandiose and triumphant conclusion:
Dvorak started work on his CzechSuite (Ceska Suita) on 4th March 1879, while working at the same time on the String Quartet in E flat major, Opus 51. It was firstperformed in Prague on 16th May by the orchestra of the Czech provisional Theatre underAdolf Cech. The suite, which is scored for double woodwind, with cor anglais, pairs ofhorns, trumpets and timpani and strings, is a form of serenade, its outer movementsestablishing the key of D major. The opening Pastorale, marked Allegro moderato allows thefirst violin to offer a Czech melody, joined by the oboe and followed by the viola, with acontinuing ostinato accompaniment. The D minor Polka
has a contrasting major Trio section and this movement is followed by a Bohemian dance, the Sousedska, the counterpart ofthe Minuet, introduced by the clarinet and bassoon, answered by the strings, and in thekey of B flat major. There is a shift to G major as the flute, accompanied by a throbbingstring accompaniment, introduces the Romance, in which the woodwind and horns have a majorpart to play. The suite ends with a Furiant, reinforced now by trumpet and drums andopening in D minor, to end in a cheerful D major.
The Hussite Overture
(Husitska) was written between 9th August and 9th September 1883 at Dvorak 's countryhouse at Vysoka. It was intended to serve as an introduction to a play by FrantiekAdolf ubert on Hussite history, part of an intended trilogy that was not completeddealing with the Hussite rebellion, an event that had contemporary national significancein Bohemia. The overture was performed at the opening of the rebuilt National Theatre inPrague on 18th November. It is scored for a full orchestra and includes a Hussite hymn"Those who are the warriors of God" and a middle section reference to the Hymn of St. Wenceslas in its representation of thetriumph of the Czech people against their enemies.
Dvorak's Festival March,Opus 54, was written in 1879 in appropriate celebration of the silver weddingof the Emperor Franz Josef and Elisabeth of Austria.
The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowi