The Kennedy Center

Carnival Overture, Op. 92

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda



Carnival Overture, Op. 92 (1891)

Antonín Dvorák

Born September 8, 1841 in Nelahozeves, Bohemia.

Died May 1, 1904 in Prague.


Like almost every musician of the late 19th century, Dvorák had to come to grips with the astounding phenomenon of Richard Wagner and his music dramas. Around 1890, he undertook a study of this grandiloquent music, as well as that of Wagner's stylistic ally (and father-in-law) Franz Liszt, and was rewarded with a heightened awareness of the expressive possibilities of orchestral program music. Several important scores from Dvorák's last years seem to bear the influence of his study of this so-called "Music of the Future": the five tone poems of 1896-1897 (The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wild Dove and Heroic Song), Silent Woods for Cello and Orchestra, Poetic Tone Pictures for Solo Piano, and the 1892 cycle of three concert overtures originally titled Nature, Love and Life.

In his study of the composer, John Clapham indicated that Dvorák intended the triptych of overtures to represent "three aspects of the life-force's manifestations, a force which the composer designated ‘Nature,' and which not only served to create and sustain life, but also, in its negative phase, could destroy it." More specifically, Otakar Sourek noted that they depicted "the solemn silence of a summer night, a gay whirl of life and living, and the passion of great love." Dvorák linked the three works by employing a motto theme representing Nature that appears in all of them, and he further pointed up their relationship by, at first, giving them a common opus number. He had difficulty settling on titles for the individual movements, however, arriving at the names In Nature's Realm, Carnival and Othello (and three separate opus numbers) only after much consideration. The cycle was written between March 1891 and January 1892 in Prague and at the composer's country home in Vyšoká; Carnival was sketched during July and August, and completed on September 12th.

While he was composing these works, Dvorák was invited by Mrs. Jeanette Thurber to take up residence in the United States and become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, an offer he accepted to begin the following year. The joint premieres of the overtures, under the composer's direction in Prague on April 28, 1892, therefore became part of his farewell concert in that city. Appropriately, he next conducted them at his first New York appearance, in Carnegie Hall on October 21st, a program that also included America sung by a chorus of 300 voices, Anton Seidl directing Liszt's Tasso, and a new setting of the Te Deum, written specially for the occasion by Dvorák - all of which was prefaced with a stretch of grand oratory delivered by Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson on the subject of "The New World of Columbus," who, it was remarked, had thoughtfully discovered the continent exactly four centuries before the composer's arrival. A great success was proclaimed for the evening and the honored visitor alike.

Dvorák said that the Carnival Overture was meant to depict "a lonely, contemplative wanderer reaching at twilight a city where a festival is in full swing. On every side is heard the clangor of instruments, mingled with shouts of joy and the unrestrained hilarity of the people giving vent to their feelings in songs and dances." Dvorák evoked this scene with brilliant music given in the most rousing sonorities of the orchestra. Into the basic sonata plan of the piece, he inserted, at the beginning of the development section, a haunting and wistful paragraph led by the English horn and flute to portray, he said, "a pair of straying lovers," the wanderer apparently having found a companion. Following this tender, contrasting episode, the festive music returns and mounts to a spirited coda to conclude this evergreen Overture.