The Kennedy Center

The Noonday Witch

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Noel Morris

Folklore is filled with variations on the boogie man and the lump of coal in the stocking — those little lies (let’s be honest) that parents use to control strong-willed children. Antonín Dvorák’s The Noonday Witch is one of those stories that goes terribly wrong.

 

The Noonday Witch is a malignant creature whose chronicles are told and retold across many cultures. Also known as Lady Midday and Polednitsa, she murders men who labor at high noon. Unlike many legends, this one is supported by victims of the dirty deed: they are casualties of heatstroke. Evolving over the centuries, the story came to be used as a way to frighten children away from the fields where fragile crops grew. It was Karel Jaromír Erben who pulled the witch’s tale into his 1853 collection of poems titled A Bouquet of Folk Legends.

 

By 1896, Dvorák had written most of the works for which he’d be best remembered, including his Slavonic Dances, the 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies, his Carnival Overture and his Cello Concerto. He had recently returned from New York City where he served as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, and resumed his teaching position at the Prague Conservatory. After three years abroad, Dvorák plunged headlong into the folklore and fairytales of his native Bohemia. Filling his last decade with the composition of opera, he focused on storytelling through music with a kind of enthusiasm he hadn’t had before. He chose four ballads by Karel Jaromír Erben as the basis for his 1896 tone poems: The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel and The Wild Dove.

 

A staple for every Czech school child, Erben is like the Mother Goose of Bohemian fairy tales. He was as much historian as he was writer and poet, not only scouring the dusty archives, but the countryside in search of native tales and folk songs. Although Dvorák tended to write original tunes rather than quote other people’s music, his rhythms and harmonies mirror the folk music — the rhythms being a natural result of singing the Czech language. In these works, Erben’s verses can be seen scrawled in the margins of Dvorák’s manuscripts, and in some cases, can be sung right along with the tunes that Dvorák wrote for them.

 

Dvorák opens The Noonday Witch with a picture of domestic bliss: a mother moves about the home, managing household duties along with one rambunctious tot. When an oboe sounds a repeated figure on D-flat, a note that doesn’t belong in this C major tableau, we get the first hint of discord. The child is chiseling at his mother’s patience — of course, any parent can relate to having one’s ambitions derailed by a pint-sized person with attitude. Drawing the reader in with wit and humor, the truthiness of the poem serves to magnify its horror:

 

By the bench there stood an infant,

Screaming, screaming, loud and wild;

‘Can’t you just be quiet an instant?

Hush, you nasty gipsy-child!

 

Now it’s noon, or just about,

Daddy’s coming home for dinner:

while I cook, the fire’s gone out—

all your fault, you little sinner!

 

 

Notice the rhythms in this translation by Susan Reynolds, Curator of Czech, Slovak and Lusatian Collections at the British Library. In Czech, the first syllable is accented. Dvorák’s score follows suit, accenting the first beat, and relaying the poem through its awful conclusion.

 

Outmaneuvered by her tiny son, the mother appeals to a higher power: “Hush, you naughty little fellow, Or the Noonday Witch I’ll bring you!”

 

 

The child settles down, but it’s too late! At the stroke of noon, the nightmarish figure of the Witch appears in the room. The terrified mother wraps her arms around her little imp. The father comes home to find her collapsed on the floor, clutching the boy’s lifeless body.