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Overture, Othello, Op. 93

About the Work

Antonín Dvorák
Quick Look Composer: Antonín Dvorák
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Jiří Bĕlohlávek, conductor/Christian Tetzlaff, violin, performs Mozart Apr. 19 - 21, 2007
© Richard Freed
Dvořák completed the composition of this descriptive overture—in effect, a tone poem—in January 1892 and conducted its first performance on October 21 of that year, at Carnegie Hall in New York. The National Symphony Orchestra's only previous performances of the work were conducted by James DePreist on September 7 and 8, 1973.

The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration, 15 minutes.
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Othello and Richard III, both represented in this week's concerts, are among the numerous Shakespeare plays that have attracted the attention of more than a single composer. Rossini composed an operatic Otello in 1816, the same year as The Barber of Seville, more than seventy years before the premiere of Verdi's masterwork. Many composers provided incidental music for the play itself, or set some of its text as songs; Dvořák's compatriot Zdeněk Fibich produced a tone poem on Othello, in the form of a "programmatic overture,"as early as 1873, nineteen years before Dvořák himself responded to the play in the same format.

Dvořák's Othello is the final part of a triptych which otherwise has no Shakespearean connection. It was his original intention, in the spring of 1891, to produce a tripartite orchestral work titled Nature, Life and Love; even before he had completed the three sections, however, he decided to publish them separately as concert overtures titled In Nature's Realm (Op. 91), Carnival (Op. 92) and Othello (Op. 93). Dvořák conducted the first two of these three overtures himself in a concert of his works in Prague just prior to his departure for New York in April 1892, and he included the entire triptych in his first American concert six months later. The triptych has rarely been given as such since then, and its two outer portions have not been heard frequently on their own, while the middle one, Carnival, established itself early on as one of the composer's most successful shorter works for orchestra.

In a letter from America in which he offered his publisher both this set of overtures and the Symphony in E minor which he called From the New World, Dvořák described the overtures as nothing less than "my very best orchestral works."Of the three, Othello is perhaps the most substantial and the most subtle, touching emotions not engaged by its more outgoing companion works. A fairly specific scenario may be found pencilled in by the composer in the autograph score:

They [Otello and Desdemona] embrace in silent ecstasy...Othello tries to murder her at the height of his wrath...For the last time she again protests her innocence...She dies quietly...The desperate Othello begins to regret his deed; the torment in his soul lessens...He prays...He kisses her for the last time...He considers his dreadful crime...He decides on suicide... He kills himself.

It would appear, however, that while the tale of Othello was the original inspiration for this work, its nature was broadened somewhat when Dvořák was actually composing it, for he entertained thoughts of assigning it a more "generic" title, considering specifically Overtura eroica and Tragic Overture. Either of those designations would fit the work's noble proportions well, for the music seems more concerned with a broad general idea than with a specific drama; but the compassionate Dvořák thought more in terms of real people than abstract concepts, and may well have concluded that the specific Shakespearean title symbolizes more poignantly the darkest mysteries of the human heart.