Dvořák: The Noon Witch, op. 108

performed by the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra under Theodore Kuchar, or below by the Vienna Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa


Excitingly another work from Dvořák this week, with his Noon Witch, a piece I had the chance to hear live a year or more ago. Like yesterday’s work, it was also written and completed in 1986, a busy year for Dvořák. Interestingly, both of these works were written after his return to America, but bear none of the American-ness of the 12th string quartet or the ninth symphony. The cello concerto, at least to me, bears some resemblance in content to the ninth symphony, but isn’t nearly as folksy American sounding as the symphony (if at all).

In contrast, these works are strongly nationalistic, expressing a rustic, folksy feel based on Czech stories and folklore. [Spoiler alert: this one also ends with a dead child, although this one isn’t beheaded. I didn’t mention that yesterday. The daughter is beheaded.] Seems maybe the Czechs were a bit dark in their storytelling.

In any case, similar situation here: another story from Kyticewith character-specific orchestration, in this work perhaps more directly related to the individual characters instead of just association with a theme or motif. As Wikipedia says:

Dvořák’s music follows the story closely and the orchestration is often used to illustrate characters and events: the oboe and bass clarinet are used to depict the misbehaving child and the witch respectively, whilst twelve strokes of a bell signal the coming of noon. During the witch’s chase, the music alternates between two different time signatures as a further dramatic device.

The piece opens quite rustically, pastorally, very folksy sounding, more so than last week, but we can quickly hear the unruly child (the oboe) interrupting the orchestra. The opening theme is surprisingly cheery and sunny for what is to come later in the piece, but sets a wonderful scene to create the tragic contrast this story needs. Again, the music is intensely expressive, colorful, and the story it tells, once we know in a general sense what’s happening, is quite clear to the listener. It’s easy to know where exactly we are in the progress, as Dvořák’s narrative is so vivid.

For example, tense, almost ethereal strings show up just before the bass clarinet makes her entrance. The bass clarinet has never sounded more menacing or evil, with an evil chorus instruments behind her. Even the change of time signatures adds to the musical conflict, and at even the most chaotic moments, we still hear bits and pieces of the themes of our main characters, providing a great deal of unity to the work.

It’s obviously not a happy ending:

The story ends with the family’s lament over the terrible event.

The mother, in her efforts to protect her child, passes out while holding him, and smothers him. I’m not sure if there’s supposed to be any lesson in these stories. Maybe yesterday’s lesson was just… listen to your mother. I’m not sure what this one would be.

The piece ends with great tragedy, what sounds to me like a wonderfully distraught balance of anger, sorrow, remorse, regret, and loss. I find Water Goblin to be much more engaging, or exciting, but these two works are really… to me, some of the strongest examples of narrative, literary tone poems, programme music for sure. At this point, in 1896, Dvořák’s friend Brahms would have still (at least barely) been alive, and I wonder what he thought of the tone poems, if he ever heard them. In any case, while I feel these two, along with Strauss’s Don Juan, are the greatest successes of the works in the series we’ve discussed so far, two of the most famous contributions to the repertoire will make their appearances in next week’s articles. See you then.

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