performed by the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra under Theodore Kuchar, or below with the Polish National Radio Symphony under Antoni Wit
This is our 400th post here on Fugue for Thought! We’re coming up on a more significant milestone later in the month, but… it’s been 400 articles, that old On this Day series, lots of aimless thoughts, attempts at writing about pieces I don’t understand enough to write about, all sorts of things, and it’s 400 posts later, and we have lots more lined up this year, so stay tuned.
This work and tomorrow’s have really blown me away. It’s a wonder to me that they weren’t included in any of the installments of the Fantasia series for their vivid emotions and colors and incredibly storytelling capabilities.
We come again to literature. Dvořák, like Sibelius (and Liszt and Strauss), found inspiration from literature, in this case, came from a Czech book called Kytice, from which Dvořák would take the inspiration for four of his six tone poems. This is the first.
Wikipedia says that “Vodník tells a story in four parts of a mischievous water goblin who traps drowning souls in upturned teacups.” Interesting idea, but something that, as you might expect, provides lots of chance for drama in the work. I quote Wiki again:
Dvořák’s symphonic piece, which is written in the form of a rondo, follows Erben’s written verses remarkably closely; in many places the text fits literary to Dvořák’s music. This may well be a result of the fact that Dvořák derived his themes from putting Erben’s words to music. This way Dvořák produced 7 themes, mostly four bars long for this symphonic poem.
First the water goblin is introduced with a four bar theme starting three repeated notes. These three repeats prove to be vital for the whole composition: Most other themes start with three repeats, the timpani gives a three beat rhythm to the section where the girl wants to go to the lake, the church bells ring three times each at eight o’clock, the water goblin knocks three times on the door.
In fact, for the Austrian premiere (in Vienna with their famous Philharmonic), one Dr. Robert Hirschfield was asked to provide program notes, and I won’t quote anymore from the article, but he gave nine sections and their correlations to the story, with tempo markings and orchestrations, or at least the instruments that are the focus of the story at the moment.
The piece opens magically, with the flutes representing the goblin, as opposed to something more sinister, like contrabassoon or muted tuba (neither included in the orchestration) or whatever. From the very beginning, the flutes and strings present something that quickens the pulse. It’s nervous and energetic and captivating. Quickly, it begins to swirl around in the watery, magical marine world that Dvořák has created. The goblin’s theme builds and strengthens until we meet the mother and her daughter, violins and clarinet, respectively. For the rest of the play-by-play, just listen to the piece and check out Hirschfield’s program notes, but this is a piece that seems to have such unity of narration, but also such juxtaposition of emotions, as is seen with the sudden transition from the goblin’s theme to the mother/daughter, a tender, pastoral peaceful melodic pleasantness.
What Dvořák has done so outstandingly well is give really solid musical (or emotional) cues, so that if you have the program notes (even without the instrumental indications), you know what’s happening when. The piece is at turns peaceful and comfortable, then frighteningly busy, then tragic, but never trite. Sibelius was criticized last week in The Wood Nymph for sticking literally to the stanzas of the inspiration for his tone poem, but Dvořák has managed to execute an exactness to the literature without being predictable. Perhaps he was working with better material, but I’d say his effort here is overwhelmingly more gripping, and entertains and captivates from beginning to end. There are a few scenes that really stand out in my memory, such as when the goblin’s theme reappears with brass in a strange, hellacious, almost celebratory fanfare-like section that represents the daughter’s initial capture. The brief, bittersweet reunion of mother and daughter, a section played primarily by cellos and trombones, almost as a mournful chorale, with short interruptions by flute, clarinet and oboe, is also stunningly gorgeous. The swell that represents the storm that follows is also chilling. Everything in this work is so vivid, and really shows Dvořák as a master of the detail in his craft. The piece ends with “croaking frogs (piccolo and flutes), the mother’s moaning about that Friday, which was an unlucky day (cor anglais and bass clarinet), the mother’s terrible distress (oboes, cellos and basses),” What a story!
In many ways, the story is similar to Sibelius’ effort. There’s danger to which a main character succumbs, some degree of love, romantic or familial or otherwise, and the tragedy of loss. I’m surprised this work isn’t performed at least as often as, say, Stravinsky’s Firebird or any number of other famous tone poems that tell a story. Dvořák’s command of the orchestra and the vivid detail he communicates through music to his audience is no less than spellbinding. There’s also (maybe just in my mind) a distinctively Czech, or at least folksy, cultural, feel to the music, one that endears and stands out to the listener, not to mention the unity of the content throughout the piece, and the way the composer uses what has been established earlier in the piece to communicate the story. This has easily been one of the most enjoyable listens of the series so far, probably along with Strauss’s Don Juan. It’s easily of that caliber, in my opinion, but a very different style. Thankfully, or excitingly (or both), we have another of Dvořák’s tone poems lined up for tomorrow, and four more to discuss at a later date. If they’re anything like this one, we have much more exciting music to discuss. See you tomorrow for op. 108.