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Moravian Duets, orchestrated by Iván Fischer

About the Work

Antonín Dvorák
Quick Look Composer: Antonín Dvorák
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Iván Fischer, conductor/Emmanuel Pahud, flute, performs Mozart Nov. 8 - 10, 2007
© Richard Freed
Moravian Duets
        Možnost("Hoping in vain"), Op. 38, No. 1

Several of the Moravian texts Dvořák chose suggest a kinship with the German verses from the collection of folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn"), which another Bohemian-born composer, Gustav Mahler, made famous in his numerous song settings. English renderings of the respective texts are offered here, and should be sufficient guide for the listener. For the duet that opens our sequence:

               A cuckoo calls in a pine tree yonder; in the yard my lassie weeps.
               "What so distresses you, my love? Tell me while the forest sleeps.
               Reveal your sorrow when your tears are dried;
               When the cuckoo calls at Christmas you shall be my bride."

               "Do not think I'll cease my weeping; sadly I shall pine;
               Cuckoos never call at Christmas, ne'er shall I be thine."
               "God is mighty, God is good, stretch to Him your hand,
               Cuckoos even sing at Christmas, if ‘tis at His command."

From Bohemia's Woods and Fields(in Czech, Z českých luhů a hájů), like the better-known Vltava, is a pastoral image rather than a legend. Smetana wrote to his publisher,
This is a painting of the feelings that fill one when gazing at the Bohemian landscape. On all sides singing, both gay and melancholic, resounds from fields and woods: the forest regions, depicted on the solo horn; the gay, fertile lowlands of the Elbe Valley are the subject of rejoicing. Everybody may draw his own picture according to his own imagination; for the poet has an open path before him, even though he must follow the individual parts of the work.

Brian Large, in his splendid biography of the composer, observes that this work "is a symbolic hymn to Nature, an apotheosis of life's gaiety, expressed in song and dance." In the first of the three interlinked sections he finds motifs representing "the countryside (a), the country girl and her song (b), the sounds of Nature (c), and Nature itself (d)." In the central episode, which serves as a sort of trio, he notes, "(a) and (b) are transformed into a polka which is extended with . . . (d) to make the finale."

Moravian Duets
        Na tej našej střeše("There on our roof")

This duet, a wedding song, has no opus number because it was not published as part of a set, but was composed on its own for the marriage of Crown Prince Rudolf to Archduchess Stefanie in 1881.

               A swallow flies overhead, food to its young bringing.
               My love approaches, greets me with his singing.
               He calls me his fair one, a silken scarf brings me,
               And I will give him perfumed green rosemary.

        Věneček ("The crown"), Op. 38, No. 3

               Reapers now are riding homeward toward the stable;
               They will need refreshment: richly load the table!
               And the lad who brings them, will win me for his bride.
               While the food I carry, through the door comes Harry;
               And a garland for him, for ‘tis him I'll marry.
               "My crown sweet, whither shall I take thee?
               Shall I guard thee closely, or shall I let thee be?"
               "Oh, my lovely lassie, spring is rather early;
               I'll be thine in autumn time—by then I'll be prepared!"

Šárka is the shortest of the cycle's six parts, and the most graphically descriptive. In the vicinity of Prague's Růzyne Airport is a rockstrewn valley called by this name; it looks like a setting for a wild horror story, and that is just what it was, according to legend. The eponymous heroine was a Bohemian Amazon who led a rebellion against the rule of men, and it is her story that Smetana tells in this music. Again, he outlined the story in detail:

This poem depicts not the landscape, but the legend of the maiden Šárka. In the beginning is a depiction of Šárka, enraged by her lover's infidelity and swearing vengeance on the entire male race, as her Amazon companions pledge their support. From afar is heard the arrival of armed men led by Ctirad, on their way to where they intend the conquer and punish the rebel maidens. In the distance Ctirad hears a girl's cries for help, and on investigating finds Šárka, who has been tied to a tree by her accomplices as a ruse to entrap him. Šárka's beauty so inflames Ctirad that he falls in love with her and sets her free. She then offers Ctirad and his men a refreshing drink, but it is a potion which first intoxicates them and then quickly puts them to sleep. Šárka then sounds her hunting-horn, and her Amazon warriors rush from their hiding places amid the rocks to commit their bloody deed. The horror of the pitiless slaughter and the passionate fury of Šárka in satisfying her thirst for vengeance constitute the finale of this composition.

(A different version of the tale is told in Zdeněk Fibich's 1897 opera of the same title. In the libretto by Anežka Schulzová, Šárka falls in love with Ctirad when he unties her from the tree, and when he is made prisoner by the women she makes her way to Prince Přemyšl (Libuše's consort) to effect his rescue. After Ctirad is liberated, however, and all the Amazons are slain by Přemyšl's men, Šárka kills herself out of remorse over her responsibility for the death of her companions.)

Smetana's admiration for Liszt is evident in this music, as is his mastery in writing for the orchestra despite his deafness. The love scene contains "pre-echoes" of Strauss at his most voluptuous, and the final pages foreshadow that composer's Elektra. The male warriors' drunkenness, in a sort of scherzo episode, is limned in a distorted polka, and their snoring is realistically suggested by the bassoons. (Smetana remarked, "I don't think it will produce a comical effect, but if it does, no matter; I wanted it to be drastic.") Following that, as Brian Large observes, the composer "captures the sense of evil preceding Šárka's treacherous onslaught, and by skilfully employing the dark colors of the woodwind in their lowest register with ominous string tremolandos he evokes the foreboding of destruction." The destruction itself is hardly left to the listener's imagination.

Moravian Duets
        Hoře("The smart"), Op. 38, No. 4

               Lo, a ripening apple fell while I was staring;
               Fell because such grief at my broken heart was tearing.
               Nay, 'tis not mere grieving, sorrow felt profoundly;
               My heart does feel such pain as if a knife had found me.
               Nay, 'tis not a knife blade, but a saw that sears me;
               Ne'er can you, my true love, be forever near me.

Vltava, named for the river that runs through much of Bohemia and through the capital city, Prague, is the second part of Má vlast, and the part that everyone knows—though most of us know it by that Czech river's German name: The Moldau. The idea for this work had been forming in Smetana's mind for at least seven years before he got round to working on it on November 20, 1874 (two days after completing Vyšehrad), and that no doubt explains how he was able to complete the score in only three weeks. The inspiration first came to him during a country holiday in August 1867, when he visited the spot where the Vydra and Otava flow together in the Sumava Valley. Three years later he noted a further impetus: "an excursion to the St. John Rapids where I sailed in a boat through the huge waves at high water: the view of the landscape on either side was both beautiful and grand." The published score carries his description of the scenes he hoped to evoke in the piece:

Two springs gush forth in the shade of the Bohemian forest, the one warm and spouting, the other cool and tranquil. Their waves joyously rushing down over their rocky beds unite and glisten in the rays of the morning sun. The forest brook fast hurrying on becomes the river Vltava, which flowing ever on through Bohemia's valleys grows to be a mighty streat: it flows through thick woods in which the joyous noise of the hunt and the notes of the hunter's horn are heard ever nearer and nearer; it flows through grass-grown pastures and lowlands, where a wedding feast is celebrated with song and dancing. At night the wood and water nymphs revel in its shining waves, in which many fortresses and castles are reflected as witnesses of the past glory of knighthood and vanished warlike fame of bygone ages. At the St. John Rapids the stream rushes on, weaving through the cataracts, and with its foamy waves beats a path for itself through the rocky chasm into the broad river in which it flows on in majestic repose toward Prague, welcomed by time-honored Vyšehrad, whereupon it vanishes in the far distance from the poet's gaze.