DVORAK: Symphonic Poems (Beata Jankowska/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Stephen Gunzenhauser) (Naxos: 8.550598)
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Antonin Dvořak (1841 - 1903)
The Noon Witch (Polednice), Op. 108 (Die Mittagshexe La fee de midi)
The Golden Spinning-Wheel (Zlaty kolovrat), Op. 109
(Das goldene Spinnrad Lerouet d'or)
The Wild Dove (Holoubek), Op. 110 (Die Waldtaube La colombe)
Antonin Dvořak must be considered the greatest of the Czechnationalist composers of the later nineteenth century, and he continues toenjoy the widest international popularity. His achievement was to bringtogether music that derived its inspiration from Bohemia's woods and fieldswith the classical traditions continued by Brahms in Vienna, at the same timeestablishing a distinctively Czech musical idiom and suggesting the futuredevelopment of music stemming from w hat had long been a rich source of musicalinspiration within the Habsburg Empire.
Dvořak was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where his fathercombined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that hisson would later follow. As a child he played in his father's village band, hisearly 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 anuncle, allowed instruction in the rudiments of music from Antonin Liehmann. Twoyears later he was sent to Kamenice to learn German, but the following year theneeds of his family made it necessary for him to return to Zlonice, where hisparents had now settled, to help in the butcher's shop. Liehmann continued hislessons and persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague. In 1857 he enteredthe Prague Organ School, where he was able to remain for two years.
Dvořak at first earned his living in Prague playing the viola in aband led by Karel Komsak, which was later to form part of the orchestra of theProvisional Theatre, established in 1862. He was to become principalviola-player and to continue as an orchestral player for the next nine years,for some time under the direction of Smetana, who exercised considerableinfluence on Dvořak's parallel work as a composer. In 1871 he found himselfable to resign from the orchestra and to marry. He took a position as organistat the church of St. Adalbert, taught a few pupils and otherwise devotedhimself to composition. It was through the encouragement of Brahms, four yearslater, that his music was brought gradually to the attention of a much widerpublic. In particular Brahms was able to persuade Simrock to publish Dvořak'svocal Moravian Duets. Their success was followed by the publisher's request forfurther music of this kind, resulting in the first series of Slavonic Dances, Opus 46, composed forpiano duet, but orchestrated at the same time by the composer. The same year,1878, saw the composition of the three SlavonicRhapsodies, Opus 45.
From this time onwards Dvořak's fame was to grow and he was to winparticular popularity in Germany and in England, visiting the latter country onseveral occasions and fulfilling commissions for choral works for Birminghamand Leeds. In 1891 he was appointed professor of composition at PragueConservatory and the following year accepted an invitation to go to New York asdirector of the new National Conservatory. The period in America gave rise toone of his best known works, the Symphony "From the New World". By1895 he was back again in Prague, teaching at the Conservatory, of which hebecame director in 1901. He died two years later.
Dvořak was a prolific composer for the orchestra and his ninesymphonies form an essential part of symphonic repertoire, although theoverwhelming popularity of the last, \From the New World", has tended todistract attention from the earlier symphonies. The group of symphonic poemswritten in 1896 and 1897 are of particular interest, coming as they do threeyears after the last symphony and exhibiting a musical language based to someextent on the intonations of speech and generally associated therefore ratherwith the work of Mussorgsky and Janacek. These compositions in any caserepresent a departure into territory more familiar from Liszt or RichardStrauss in their use of extra-musical elements.
Four of the five symphonic poems of Dvořak are based on poems byKarel Jaromir Erben, a collection of ballads published under the collectivetitle of The Garland. The second of the set, The Noon Witch, has a very preciseprogramme, outlined in the composer's correspondence. In the opening bars achild plays quietly, turning his attention to a toy cockerel, while his motherprepares dinner. She is cross with the child, who cries. His mother thenbecomes angrier still and scolds her son, threatening him with the noon witch,whose maleficent activities are confined to the hours between eleven o'clockand midday. The child grows calmer, as the scene is repeated. In what is theequivalent 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 themother, this represented by bass clarinet and muted strings, followed by thewitch motif from bassoon and bass clarinet. In livelier music from horns andtrombones the witch demands the child, but the mother in desperation holds thechild 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 screamsand almost dead and scarcely breathing collapses. At this point the noontidebell is heard, deterring the witch. In the following Andante the father of thefamily prays, not knowing what has happened. He opens the door of his house andcomes in to find his wife lying without sign of life. He tries to revive her andshe starts to breathe again. He becomes more agitated, more particularly whenhe finds his child dead. In the final bars the witch vanishes.
The Wild Dove, thefourth of the symphonic poems, opens with a funeral march. A young widowfollows the coffin of her dead husband. In a following Allegro a cheerful andhandsome young man meets and comforts her, persuading her to forget her griefand 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 mournfulcooing of a wild dove is heard, piercing the woman's heart and bringing afeeling of remorse, since she had poisoned her husband, a crime of which therehas already been a hint in the opening of the work. Conscience drives her madand she drowns herself. The last section of the work provides an Epilogue.
The third of the group, The GoldenSpinning-Wheel, tells a more complicated fairy-story, in the form ofa free rondo. A young king riding out to hunt stops at a cottage to ask forwater. He sees Domicka, who brings him w hat he wants, before resuming herspinning. The king tells her he loves her and hears that she is waiting for herstep-mother. Later he returns and tells the ugly old step-mother to bringDomicka to his castle. The old woman sets out with Domicka and with her owndaughter but in the forest they cut oft Domicka's hands and feet and put outher 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 theother girl for Domicka, whom she closely resembles, marries her. A week laterhe must go to the war and bids his wife spin until his return. Meanwhile amysterious old man has found Domicka's body and sends a boy to the castle todemand her feet in return for a golden spinning-wheel and then her hands inreturn for a golden distaff and a third time her eyes in return for a goldensp