Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904)
«Die Waldtaube», Sinfonische Dichtung op. 110
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Sinfonie Nr. 38 D-Dur KV 504 «Prager»
Konzert für Violine und Orchester a-Moll op. 53
«Die Mittagshexe», Sinfonische Dichtung op. 108
Dvořák’s Tales of the Bohemian Woods
The appearance of folk melodies in classical compositions was hardly a novely at the dawn of the 19th century. Mozart and Beethoven both made use of folk tunes. Haydn’s own father was a folk musician, singing duets with his wife Anna Maria while playing accompaniment on the harp, and those early memories found their way into the son’s work. But the spirit of nationalism that struck Europe in the mid 19th century, especially around the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, often found its musical identity by delving into local folk song and tale in a way that was unprecedented. The Russians had Rimsky-Korsakov, the Scandanavians Grieg and later Sibelius. But the Bohemian and Moravian countryside that surrounded cosmopolitan Prague was particularly fertile, and grew ripe fruit in the imaginations of the Czech composers Bedřich Smetana and Antonin Dvořák.
Dvořák was drawn to the music of his nation, and its melodies and rhythms pepper most of his work. The finale of his Violin Concerto, which has become a staple of the romantic repertoire, plays between a wistful balladic dumka and a joyful Bohemian dance. But Dvořák was also attracted to tales from the Czech woods. In four symphonic poems, written between 1896-1897, Dvořák drew on a collection of folk ballads from the collection Kytice (Bouquet) written by the Czech poet and folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben in 1853. An archivist by profession, Erben’s curiosity drove him out of the library and into the countryside where he gathered fragments of folk tales, stories of metamorphosis like something out of Ovid, and horror stories reminiscent of the Ukrainian grand guignols of Gogol.
The second of Dvořák’s symphonic poems was inspired by Erben’s The Noonday Witch, based on a Slavic myth. The story tells of a mother who threatens her misbehaving son that if he does not settle down she will call for the Noonday Witch to carry him far away. The boy ignores his mother. And sure enough, as the sun climbs overhead, the witch arrives and demands the child. The mother, horrified that her threat has come true, grabs her son and runs from the witch until she faints from exhaustion. That evening, the father returns home to find his wife unconscious, with their dead son in her arms. The mother had accidentally smothered him while protecting him from the witch. It’s a story that continues to haunt the Czech imagination, and was recently turned into a popular psycho-horror film by the young Czech director Jiri Sadek.
The fourth symphonic poem, The Wild Dove is no less macabre. A woman poisons her husband and marries another man. A wild dove flies in and sits on the grave of her dead husband singing a mournful ballad day after day. The wife goes mad with guilt and jumps into the river and drowns.
It may be significant that Dvořák followed the composition of the four Erben symphonic poems with a fifth, A Hero’s Song, based perhaps on more autobiographical material. Far less eerie, although it includes a funereal section, it ends with a triumphal coda, worthy of a hero. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is far less popular than its weirder, folkier companions.