Scary Stories and a Neglected Virtuoso Showpiece
Compositions by Dvořák, Martinů and Janáček
A good deal of this concert programme of works by three Czech composers is not for the faint of heart. The first and last pieces are based on gruesome tales. In Antonín Dvořák’s Golden Spinning-Wheel there is at least a happy ending. The ballad Taras Bulba, however, ends tragically, though Leoš Janáček’s music transfigures the deeds, Russian veneration and death of the eponymous Slavic hero. Coming between these grisly stories is Bohuslav Martinů’s First Violin Concerto, which was not premiered until decades after its completion. It is a typical example of the art of a 20th-century composer who is difficult to categorize and undeservedly neglected outside his homeland.
The Golden Spinning Wheel by Antonín Dvořák
Following the composition of his Ninth Symphony in 1896, Dvořák turned his attention to programme music and wrote four symphonic poems within a short span of time. They are based on ballads by his compatriot, the historian, author and archivist Karel Jaromír Erben, best known for his collection of Czech folk tales. Although Dvořák did not have a cohesive cycle in mind and developed each individual composition according to its particular nature, his four contributions to the genre do exhibit a degree of interconnection: “They form a unit,” wrote Jarmil Burghauser in the preface to his edition of the score, “owing in particular to their pure Czech character and their popular appeal, typical features of Erben’s work for which Dvořák succeeded in creating ideal musical equivalents.”
The third of Dvořák’s four symphonic poems based on Erben is The Golden Spinning Wheel. It differs from its two predecessors, The Water Goblin and The Noon Witch, “in departing from ballad form and assuming that of a rhymed fairytale, both in its content and in its broader, epic unfolding” (Burghauser). The ballad of 62 five-line strophes is grotesque as well as gory: a mysterious golden spinning wheel brings the victim of a perfidious murder back to life and reunites her with her lover.
Dvořák has given specific leitmotivic themes to the characters and certain situations in the story. A singular feature of the work is that he has shaped the music according to the rhythms and declamatory tone of the literary text. It would be possible to sing the original verses to the orchestral work’s melody. This compositional method was taken up and further developed in Leoš Janáček’s idea of “speech melody”.
Bohuslav Martinů’s Violin Concerto No. 1
Next to Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů is “the fourth classic figure of Czech music” (Harry Halbreich) and one of the most important composers of the first half of the 20th century. Even so, he was never as famous as his contemporaries such as Béla Bartók or Igor Stravinsky. What the Martinů scholar Halbreich asserted in 1968 seems no less true in the 21st century: “The avant-gardists turn away from him with a shrug, while, on the other hand, the idiosyncratic formal structure of his music, its constant motion, and its lack of well-defined thematic material or familiar points of reference present the performers with difficulties they would not expect from this apparently mild-mannered, tonal musical idiom.”
Martinů composed his First Violin Concerto in 1932-33 for the violinist Samuel Dushkin. Problems arose during his work on it because the composer, an excellent violinist himself, was in no need of advice from the virtuoso soloist. Martinů’s friend and biographer Miloš Šafránek recalled in 1961 “the two artist’s frequent exchanges of opinion about various details of the concerto, which apparently was the reason that the composer left it unfinished”. The manuscript then mysteriously disappeared. To replace it, Martinů wrote a four-movement Suite concertante for Dushkin in Paris just before the outbreak of World War II; he revised and expanded it in 1942-43 when he was already living in the USA.
The score of the violin concerto was discovered three decades after its composition by the musicologist and pianist Hans Moldenhauer, who had emigrated to the USA in 1938 and found the manuscript in 1961 in the possession of the principal bassoonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a friend of Martinů. After the composer’s widow gave her permission for the preparation of a practical performing version of the concerto, Moldenhauer contacted the Czech violinist Josef Suk and was able to engage his services for a special East-West cultural cooperation. The work was first heard on 25 and 26 October 1973 in Chicago with Suk as soloist, and it had its Prague premiere just under a year later on 24 September 1974.
Why Dushkin had reservations about, indeed rejected the piece remains uncertain. Perhaps he thought the solo part in Martinů’s concerto was unduly merged with the orchestra – its energetic, exuberant outer movements in particular are marked by a neo-Baroque momentum and concerto grosso character. There is also no cadenza for the soloist to show off his brilliance, though in the second movement, a lyrical Andante, he has an intensive concertante relationship with the principal woodwind. All in all, the concerto makes extreme demands on the performers’ virtuosity.
Taras Bulba – Rhapsody for orchestra byLeoš Janáček
Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba widens our view from Czech to Slavic and is a prime example of the composer’s Russophilism – as a young man he actually preferred the Russian form of his first name, “Lev”. In 1896 he came to the country he so admired for the first time to visit his brother František, who was living in St. Petersburg. Janáček wrote down vivid descriptions of his Russian journeys. He learned Russian, and in Brno, the Moravian city that played a formative role in his development, he became a member of the Russian Club, founded in 1899 for the cultivation of Russian language and literature. With time, he was reading novels and stories by Russian authors in the original. Some of them inspired him to compose operas: a drama by Alexander Ostrovsky was the source of Kátʼa Kabanová, while a novel by Dostoyevsky became From the House of the Dead. And Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata was the basis of his First String Quartet.
Taras Bulba, original designated a “Slavic orchestral rhapsody”, has literary roots as well: in 1903-04 Janáček read Nikolai Gogol’s novella about the Cossack leader Taras Bulba, made notes for translating various passages and jotted down a few musical ideas. In his composition Janáček concentrated less on the problematic personality of the title figure than on his role as military leader and his unshakable faith in the strength of the Russian people. In doing so, he touched a crucial nerve, the political, nationalistically tinged emotions of Czechs and Slovaks under the yoke of Habsburg domination.
Janáček explained his intentions: “Not because Taras Bulba killed his first son for having betrayed his country... nor because of the martyr’s death suffered by his second son, but because ‘there is no fire nor suffering in the whole world which could break the strength of the Russian people’ – for these words, which fall onto the stinging fiery embers of the pyre on which Taras Bulba, the famous Cossack captain, was burned to death, I have composed this rhapsody according to the legend as written down by Nikolai Gogol.”