Successful Musical Exports from South-Eastern Europe
Works by Antonín Dvořák, Béla Bartók and Leoš Janáček
Optimistic and melancholy: Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances op. 72
Musicians from Bohemia were successful exports to the courts in Mannheim, Potsdam and Vienna during the 18th century. In his Diary of a Musical Journey Charles Burney wrote: “I had frequently been told that the Bohemians were the most musical people of Germany, or perhaps, of all Europe.” One hundred years later the national consciousness had become stronger in Bohemia and Moravia, like everywhere in Europe, and opera performances became political manifestos against Austrian rule.
Antonín Dvořák’s career was given a boost by Johannes Brahms, who became aware of the 33-year-old in 1874. He recommended the younger colleague to his publisher Fritz Simrock, who immediately commissioned him to compose a cycle modelled after Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. Dvořák’s op. 48, the first series of Slavonic Dances, was as successful as the popular works by his supporter. Whereas Brahms had intentionally arranged existing folk melodies, however, Dvořák composed all the themes and motifs himself: in the spirit of Czech folklore and based on authentic dance forms, at most paraphrasing pre-existing material. He also followed this principle in the second series of Slavonic Dances op. 72. If the op. 48 still displays a certain earthiness, the second series seems to be covered with an elegiac veil, as though Dvořák consciously wanted to bring out the “two souls in the breast” of Czech identity: the optimistic and the melancholy temperament.
Op. 72 No. 2, with its sensitive string brilliance, and No. 4, with introverted woodwind motifs, exude a particularly poetic, nostalgic charm. No. 1 conveys confident vitality with emphatically dotted rhythms, exuberant short motifs and the propulsive drive of the triangle and cymbals. Dvořák chose a Slovakian shepherd’s dance here, the odzemek. In the other dances as well, rhythms that are not of Czech origin dominate. Instead, Dvořák reveals the diversity of eastern European music: the Ukrainian dumka in No. 4, the fast Serbian kolo in the tremendously high-spirited No. 7, the Polish mazurka (middle section of No. 2) and the elegant polonaise (No. 6). Dvořák returns to Bohemia in the last dance. The sousedská, a measured partner dance in three-four metre, concludes the cycle: swaying slowly and gently, taking the wind out of the sails of pathos.
Crystal-clear austerity: Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1
Béla Bartók was also born during the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. Strongly attracted to Hungarian nationalism in his youth, he had increasingly understood the coexistence of the Balkan peoples as an opportunity. During the 1920s his quest for stronger stylization came up against the general artistic tendency towards abstraction. As both a creative and performing artist, he was particularly interested in the piano repertoire: “I must compose a piano concerto. That is lacking, and it will be my next work,” he said in 1925. The “objective”, contrapuntal expressive possibilities of the piano were perfectly suited to the compositional requirements of that time.
In Bartók’s First Piano Concerto, which was premiered in 1927, the pounding, sharply contoured themes are dominated by the percussive idea of the piano. Repeated notes in austere chords emphasize the rhythm as the driving force of the proceedings, before which melody and harmony become quite unimportant. The piano is also spatially integrated into the percussion: in the Andante Bartók calls for three percussionists, who first accompany the piano completely alone, using precisely specified playing surfaces and sticks. The percussionists already support the pianist in the first movement, however. Hammering bass notes in the piano and ostinato quavers in the timpani take up the first two bars; the snare drum later joins in to spur them on during the frenzied increases in tempo shortly before the recapitulation. Woodcut-like syncopated melodies and constant changes in metre have their roots in the “primitivisms” of folkloric elemental force.
In the Andante Bartók devises a bizarre sound experiment: at first the piano only responds to an insistent quaver motif of the three percussionists, shaded with varying timbres. It eventually enhances this motif with increasing complexity until the woodwinds chime in above the dense continuum. Their exotic melody intensifies to a mysterious, eerie procession.
After this laconic nocturne, grotesque trombone glissandos lead into a breakneck finale, beginning with smashing octaves in the piano. The piano and orchestra continually drive each other forward, suddenly decelerate, then start again. A brilliant brass theme sparkles like an early Baroque canzona. This wild galop is an indication of Bartók’s vibrant power as a man and an artist.
Herald trumpets and democratic celebration: Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta op. 60
Immediately after Dvořák’s death in 1904 Leoš Janáček summed up his importance: “No one has been able to measure this sea, this Czech sea of his music. That is why it was so still after his death. If only the pompous commemorations were over!” Twenty-two years later “pompous commemorations” brought Janáček himself a resounding success. The occasion was a commission from the Czech gymnastic association Sokol (Falcon) for a congress in June 1926. The Sokol regarded itself as the platform of the Czech nationalist movement; Janáček had also been a member since his youth. As the apotheosis of independence he wrote a brilliant fanfare for the Sokol that harks back to a national icon: the opening fanfare from Smetana’s Libuše, an opera about the legendary matriarch of the Bohemian ruling dynasty and founder of Prague. Janáček adhered to the proud tradition of this fanfare but reinforced it with thirteen more brass instruments.
Four additional movements quickly grew out of this fanfare. They were premiered with the title Sinfonietta by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Talich at the Sokol congress in Prague in 1926. Over and above any nationalist implications the work fascinatingly reveals what an innovative sound the late bloomer Janáček brought to his music. This work by the 71-year-old composer is full of dazzling impulsiveness and burning passion, excessive, ecstatic and yet sensitive. As a result of his interest in folk music material Janáček had not only discovered dance melodies which appear again and again throughout the Sinfonietta. Even more important were his efforts to find the precise rhythmic and melodic intonation of the Czech language. These brief, expressive, at times nervously overexcited orchestral motifs also dominate the music. In his draft programme the movements were designated with names of places: “The Castle – The Queen’s Monastery – The Street – The Town Hall”. There is so much swirling and buzzing in them that one could become quite dizzy from this exuberant vitality. At the close the herald trumpets again show the way with the powerful fanfare motif, paraphrased and cheered by excited trills and tremolos in the woodwinds and strings.