The Kennedy Center

Slavonic Dances, Op. 46

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Richard Freed

Dvoř?k composed the first of his two sets of Slavonic Dances between March 18 and May 7 in 1878, for piano duet (i.e., one piano, four hands), and then proceeded to orchestrate the entire set, completing that version on August 22 of the same year. By then the orchestral versions of Nos. 1, 3 and 4 had been performed in Prague (on May 16), under Adolf Čech. Nos. 1, 2 and 3 of this set had their first National Symphony Orchestra performances on, respectively, February 24, 1935, conducted by Hans Kindler; October 2, 1941, under Rudolph Ganz, and July 9, 1943, Stanley Chapple conducting; the most recent ones were conducted by Thomas Wilkins on November 25, 2001, by Albert Coleman on July 27, 1979, and by Leonard Slatkin on January 28, 1999, during the NSO?s tour of China.

The score for the Op. 46 set calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings. Timing for these three dances, 14 minutes.

It was Johannes Brahms?s interest in and support for his younger colleague?s work that led directly to Dvoř?k?s first set of Slavonic Dances. In 1877 Dvoř?k applied for a renewal of the Austrian State Grant he had received two years earlier (Bohemia was a part of the Austrian empire at that time), and Brahms, a member of the commission constituted to pass on such applications, was so impressed with the Moravian Duets that Dvořak submitted (his Op. 32, settings of Moravian folk poetry for soprano, alto and piano) that he made his discovery known to his own publisher, Simrock of Berlin, who not only brought out that score at once, but immediately asked Dvoř?k for more material, thus initiating a relationship which, with a hitch or two in the following decade, was to continue to the end of the composer?s life.

Simrock knew his audience. One of his great successes with Brahms?s compositions?the work, in fact, that accounted for his big breakthrough in terms of broad-scale popularity?had been the first book of Hungarian Dances, which he produced in 1869. Simrock had been after Brahms for another such collection, but it was not to materialize until 1880; in the meantime, he suggested to his new client Dvoř?k that he compose a similar set of national dances, to be written, like those of Brahms, for piano duet, but based on the dance forms of his own country. Dvoř?k at that point was interested in making his name with weightier offerings, but he recognized the practical nature of Simrock?s request, not only for own benefit, but as an opportunity to acquaint a broad public with the Czech spirit in music.

As the dates given above indicate, Dvoř?k wrote these dances in a fairly short time and then, at Simrock?s request, orchestrated them at once. The original four-hand version, published in August 1878, made a small fortune for Simrock; Dvoř?k was paid only 300 marks, but these dances assured him the warmest welcome everywhere and led to a number of truly significant commissions.

It is significant that Dvoř?k labeled his dances ?Slavonic,? rather than ?Czech? (for which his by then somewhat envious senior compatriot Bedřich Smetana made a disparaging comment when he brought out his own Czech Dances for piano). While his first book of Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, from which the dances that open the present concerts are drawn, is predominantly Czech in respect to the forms represented, the second book, Op. 72, which came along nine years later, includes forms native to such other Slavic lands as Serbia, Poland and Ukraine. Regardless of the specific forms involved, there is an essential difference between these Slavonic Dances of Dvoř?k and the Hungarian Dances of Brahms: the German composer, dealing with a colorful ?exotic? strain, offered his dances as ?arrangements,? advising Simrock that they were ?innocent Gypsy children, whom I did not beget, but merely brought up with bread and milk??which is to say, the actual melodies were drawn from folk music. Dvoř?k, however, in dealing with his own native idiom, did not use actual folk tunes in his dances, but created his own themes in the authentic style of folk music; that there has been any misunderstanding on this point only attests to his success in capturing the authentic folk spirit entirely through the fortunate combination of being immersed in that spirit and having the creative imagination to expand upon it.

The Slavonic Dances also happen to be more ambitious in their proportions than the Hungarian Dances (the last five of which, incidentally, Dvoř?k arranged for orchestra). Brahms sought to do no more than present his engaging Hungarian tunes in the form of attractive miniatures; Dvoř?k, however, approached the writing of his dances with a broader objective in mind, so that each of them, and particularly in the orchestral setting, may well strike the listener as a concise ethnic rhapsody in the guise of an idealized dance form.

No. 1 in C major, in the form of a FURIANT. The name of this characteristic Czech dance, we are advised, ?has no etymological connection with the English word ?fury??; its character is fiery and impulsive, but in a cheerful, exuberant frame. Dvoř?k used this form at the end of this set as well as the beginning, and also for the scherzo movements of his String Sextet, Op. 48, and his Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60.

No. 2 in E minor?DUMKA. The dumka is a Ukrainian form, but has been used to good advantage by composers of various Slavic backgrounds. Basically, it is a plaintive slow dance with a more animated middle section. Dvoř?k constructed the entirety of his final piano trio (E minor, Op. 90) in the form of a chain of dumky, and one of Tchaikovsky?s better-known works for piano solo is his Dumky, Op. 59. This particular Slavonic Dance, as the Czech writer Jiř? Berkovec pointed out, actually combines elements of the dumka with those of the Polish gumenjak and, in the quick section in the major that serves as trio, the Moravian ovč?ck? (shepherd?s dance).

No. 3 in A-flat?POLKA. This was No. 6 in the original keyboard sequence; Dvoř?k reversed these two dances in his orchestral setting. While essentially a sunny polka, this lyrical number, according to Mr. Berkovec, contains sections related to the kucmoch (or klatov?k, a dance from Klatov?), to the South Bohemian hulan (?lancer,? a form made familiar by Smetana) and, at the end, the skočn? (a ?spring dance,? one involving leaping or hopping, sometimes a ?hop-and-step dance), which in this case calls to mind the Dance of the Comedians in Smetana?s opera The Bartered Bride.

No. 4 in F major?in the form of a SOUSEDSK?. This waltzlike form is (like the waltz itself) related to the rural Austrian L?ndler. The Moravians designate it minuet-mazur. Dvoř?k?s marking is simply Tempo di minuetto.

No. 5 in A major?in the form of a SKOČN?. This term identifies a ?spring dance,? one involving leaping or hopping, or sometimes a ?hop-and-step? dance).

No. 6 in D major is essentially a SOUSEDSK?, but may just as accurately be designated a mazurka.

No. 7 in C minor is a SKOČN?, a dance involving leaping or hopping. According to the Czech writer Jiř? Berkovec, the rhythm, melodic contour and general structure of this piece conform to the outlines of the tetka (?auntie? dance) of the Han? region, and it is rounded off by a lively polka.

No. 8 in G minor is a FURIANT, this one a more fiery and brilliant specimen than the set?s similarly characterized opening number, providing an exuberant climax as well as a uinfied frame for the colorful sequence.