Romantic Music by Dvořák, Schubert and Strauss
Longing for Unconditional Love: Dvořák’s Rusalka as an Orchestral Suite
“It is possible for man to explore the essence and qualities of every single work that God has created” – Paracelsus considered it important to emphasize that. The Swiss physician, alchemist, astrologist, mystic and philosopher clearly placed his theory of elemental creatures in a Christian context: since human beings can “explore” elemental creatures, they must also be creations of God. But, according to Paracelsus’s Liber de nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus[Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies and Salamanders and Other Spirits], published in 1566, these divine creatures are of a special kind: they are soulless! “The water people come out of their waters to us, make themselves known, act and deal with us, go back to their water, come again – all this to allow man the contemplation of the divine works. Now, they are men, but on the animal side alone, without the soul.”
The most fervent wish of water creatures is to acquire a soul, and it can be fulfilled in only one way: through the love of a human being. This love must be unconditional, of course – infidelity means death for the water creature. That is particularly cruel, however, since infidelity also results in the loss of the soul, which was only acquired through sacrifice. The fate of water creatures is thus that of all soulless creatures: outside the Christian conception of death, all that remains for them is to wander around aimlessly. Hans Christian Andersen described the state of the now dead mermaid in a way that reveals why her fleeting death provided a tremendously exciting motivic core for the music. The mermaid, who “had given up her beautiful voice and suffered endless pain every day”, now regained a voice that hardly seemed human or individual but was “so melodious, but so ethereal that no human ear could hear it, just as no mortal eye could see these lovely creatures”.
What an incentive for composers to imagine such a voice and allow human ears to hear it! When Antonín Dvořák composed the opera Rusalka, it was particularly important to him to portray nature as animated and alive. In his music for Rusalka, he thus depicted the natural world using forms and sounds that “civilized ears” associate with natural things: circular and rondo forms, melodies that seem almost improvised and orchestration that attempts to capture natural acoustic phenomena.
The fairy tale requires Rusalka to be silent for a long time – a challenge for the main character of an opera! Only at the moment of death can she reveal herself to her beloved in song. This is the moment in which the vocal and instrumental elements are allowed to merge, in which the “beautiful voice” is heard both in the soprano part and the orchestra. The appeal of Dvořák’s opera lies in Rusalka’s audible and inaudible intermediate state. In an orchestral arrangement, the effect created by a soulless character that is audible to the audience as a voice but must remain silent for the prince is lost. Manfred Honeck, who arranged a suite from Dvořák’s Rusalka, and Tomáš Ille, who orchestrated it, resolve this problem entirely in keeping with the long tradition of mermaid voices. At the moment of its musical climax in the opera – the “Song to the Moon” – Rusalka’s voice is given to the solo violin, which, along with the harp, had already been used convincingly as a “voice” by many composers. Amid the surging waves of the full orchestra, the solo violin seems to reproduce most impressively the voice “so melodious, but so ethereal that no human ear can hear it”.
Journeys of the Soul: Schubert and Strauss Songs with Orchestral Accompaniment
The song dialogues of this concert programme also embark on journeys of the soul. The texts of these songs by Franz Schubert and Richard Strauss wander between love, death and the question of which land the soul inhabits in the two states. Otto Julius Bierbaum’s poem, which Strauss set to music in 1895, speaks of the “broad meadows in grey dusk” through which the lyrical persona passes: “I do not go fast, I do not hurry; / I am drawn by a soft velvet ribbon / Through grey dusk into the land of love, / Into a gentle blue light.”
Strauss decided to depict this love journey of the soul using a slowly striding scalewise motion across an octave in the vocal part, in which we can hear the irresistible pull of the soft velvet ribbon. The journey of a soul in love. The twilight realm, where dead souls can rest and be looked after and remembered by the living on All Souls’ Day, also alludes to the journey of the soul. Schubert expressed this solicitous love as a sensitive musical litany; Strauss subjectivized All Souls’ Day by linking the beginning of love in May with the gate to the realm of the dead in November. Strauss set the symbols of love and death in the top notes, like musical jewels. But can the listener believe the rest that the soul is supposed to come to after its long journey? Or does it perhaps find that final peace only at the last note, when the harmonic restlessness and sonorous threats of its long journey of remembrance seem to have vanished into oblivion? Journeys of the soul encourage us to eavesdrop on distant worlds – whether they are filled with the sound of roaring waves or clearly contoured litanies, with delicate tonal landscapes for the happiness of a fisherman in love or chimerical sounds culminating in a single note – including the final silence.
Off the Beaten Track: Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony
Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony has a much more worldly character than Rusalka’s musical journey of the soul. It has the usual four movements in the order expected of this genre and was extremely popular from the beginning. The composer conducted it in Cambridge in 1891 as thanks for the honorary doctorate he was awarded there by Cambridge University. The Eighth Symphony was perplexing at first, however, since Dvořák seemed to abandon the compositional path he had consistently and successfully taken in his previous symphonies. Even Johannes Brahms, Dvořák’s greatest supporter and champion, was completely bewildered: “The work has too much that is fragmentary and incidental hanging around in it. Everything is fine, musically gripping and beautiful – but there is no substance!” No substance? The musical narrative that Dvořák based his Eighth Symphony on actually does not aim for a clear symphonic concept – perhaps too clear at the end of the century – or focus on its “substance”, such as large form, harmonic coherence and thematic-motivic work, but on the rhapsodic element. Dvořák develops the material, interweaves musical ideas with principal and secondary strands, strings them together, takes time for his narrative. Although the semantic element – in the form of a programme, for example – plays no role in the symphony, it is the nature of the narrative that gives this work its character.
Dvořák’s rejection of a symphonic concept in the style of Brahms may have been motivated by his encounter with Peter Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky had visited Prague during a concert tour, and his Bohemian colleague had exchanged views with him on his Fifth Symphony. It is likely that Dvořák offered his new work in the genre as an artistic dialogue with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, particularly since he planned to make a concert tour to Russia. Dvořák was an extremely pragmatic composer, however. Immediately after he completed the Eighth Symphony, England became the focus of his attention, and he took this new work, which was premiered in Prague at the beginning of February 1890, along with him on his journey to England, where it was published and performed many times with great success.