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Dvorak and Passion

The MHS Review 379 Vol. 11, NO. 1 • 1987

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Frank Cooper


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Intense feelings mark the music of the great Antonin Dvorak, a man who struggl­ed throughout his 31-year career against nag­ging personal doubts. As hard as this is for us to believe now (knowing how marvelously rhythmic, abundantly mdodic, and richly orchestrated his works are), Dvorak was riddled most of his life with the suspicion that his talent was somehow inadequate. But he got ahead by persevering, aided by some powerful allies.

The personal championship of such giants of 19th-century music as Franz Liszt, Johan­nes Brahms, and Hans von Bulow helped to launch Dvorak internationally. As the years passed with a constant output of deeply felt scores from his pen, the composer matured, having accepted his national roots. Honorary degrees from Cambridge and Prague were awarded to him, proof to all (but Dvorak himself) that his instincts were sound, his ability certain, and his endeavors worthy. When he died at 62 in 1904, his place was secure (along with Bedrich Smetana and Zdenek Fibich) as one of Czechoslovakia's "Big Three" romantic composers.

The entire world may have taken to its heart the "From the New World" Sym­phony, Cello Concerto, and Slavonic Dances, yet there is much more of Dvorak than these few popular works. Beautiful and deeply felt chamber, choral, and orchestral pieces abound. The present release contains four such works, three of which belong together although we are seldom permitted to enjoy them that way. And thereby hangs a tale.

In 1891-92, Dvorak was engaged in two struggles, one with his money-minded publisher (who wanted him to compose fewer large symphonic works and more short, popular, salable pieces) and one with a generous, wealthy American lady (who wanted him to head her new National Con­servatory in New York). To the first he ac­quiesced with, among other things, three concert overtures which he had conceived, oddly, as a suite under the collective title Nature, Life and Love. To the second he ac­quiesced with an agreement giving him four months of vacation per year and a whopping salary of $15,000 (thrice his, pay at the Prague Conservatory, from which he took a leave of absence). When the composer directed his first American concert on Oc­tober 2 I, 1892 with the Boston Symphony in Carnegie Hall, the lady, Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, was in the audience and the overture-suite was on the program. Both were triumphant!

The music could hardly have been better for the purpose. Americans responded then as now to romantically tinged ideas. Dvorak's imagination had conjured up three stirring scores: the first, In Nature's Realm, evoking the Czech countryside; the second, Carnival, painting the extrovert tumult of folksy celebration; the third, Othello, using Shakespeare's plot to show the demonical force of love and jealousy which collide in tragedy. A motif from In Nature's Realm runs through the other two pieces, making Nature the binding tie among three phases of human life.

So sophisticated a linkage of three movements (each in sonata form) could on­ly have been the product of a composer at the height of his powers. But Dvorak's publisher, Simrock, saw less of a market in the whole under a single opus number than in separate works, each with its own number, he prevailed. Thus the brilliant Car­nival Overture would leave the company of its intended partners and become one of Dvorak's most popular scores while the others would get only sporadic hearings. Together as their composer meant them, the works make a suite of tone poems whose emotional impact is compelling. That is why this is a valuable release.

Composed nine years earlier, in 1883, the Scherzo capriccioso was Dvorak's proclama­tion as a proud Bohemian determined to re­main true to his national roots. It fairly bub­bles, delighting in unbridled energy and pas­sionate orchestral feeling.

(This article refers to the Dvorak's Cycle of Three Symphonic Poems recording featured on page 3.)

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