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EXPLORING MUSIC :''Some Lovely Music'' Antonin Dvorak

The MHS Review 385, Vol. 11 No. 7, 1987

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David M. Greene


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I have known Dvorak's Legends for more than 30 years, and it has never once occurred to me up until now to ask why he called the pieces that. The term, like legible, derives from the Latin verb legendus (fit for reading). The plural legenda became a noun meaning "things to be read." This ultimately came to mean "biography" and a liber legen­darius usually indicated a hagiography or book of saints' lives. Saints having, virtually by definition, to do with the miraculous, legend was broadened to mean anything normally incredible.

Legend has had, to be sure, occasional musical application. The first composer who, to my knowledge, used it to in­dicate a genre was Karl Loewe (1796-1869), who in 1834 _published Drei Legenden (Three Legends). Loewe had cultivated the Ballade or narrative secular song. The Legende was to him its religious counterpart, something on the order of a saint's legend. Liszt used it in the same way in his choral treatments of St. Elizabeth and St. Cecilia. Tchaikovsky's song Legend is a fable about the infant Jesus. Etcetera.

It is doubtful that that was the sort of thing Dvorak had in mind when he dreamed up his Legends. His winning of state prizes (thanks to Brahms' ad­vocacy) and his success with the Mora­vian Duets and the Slavonic Dances at the end of the 1870s had apparently assured his fame and his success as a composer. Having completed the sixth of his nine symphonies in 1880, he planned, we are told, a set of Legends for piano solo. But he shuffled his feet for several months and when the works were forthcoming in 1881, it was as works for piano four hands, like the original versions of the Slavonic Dances. Doubtless inspired by Simrock, his publisher, who had made a killing on

the latter works, Dvorak orchestrated the Legends before the year was out. The originals were dedicated to Brahms' champion Dr. Eduard Hanslick, and both he and Brahms wrote rapturously about them.

If Dvorak had anything in mind for his title, it was probably Marchen or folktales such as he recurred to in the symphonic poems and some of the choral music. Perhaps he meant the word to be simply evocative, allowing us, his auditors, to let our fancies rove. However, Gerald Abraham has (I read in a piece that does not say where) offered evidence that at least two of the Legends may be based on Czech ballads, lines of which Dvorak apparently set to music used here thematically. But no programs are available, so you're on your im­aginative own. Suffice it to say there's some lovely music here.

I hardly dare to broach the question, knowing the flood of triumphant mail that will be forthcoming if I'm wrong (as I usually am) but what we have here just may be a first recording. The orchestral Legends have been recorded many times, beginning, I think, with the ver­sion by the late Thomas Scherman, and most recently with the Nonesuch record by David Zinman. About 20 years ago Walter and Beatriz Klien included three of the duets in a miscellany (still apparently available), but a survey of WERM, Schwann catalogs back to 1959, several Supraphon catalogs, and three Bielefelders, suggests that an integral recording of the original set has not appeared before this one.

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