A guide to Antonín Dvořák’s music
Here are some thoughts on Dvořák’s Silent Woods, Rondo and Czech Suite from our Programmes Editor, Joanna Wyld, written for the fourth instalment of our Philharmonia Sessions.
You can also read the full programme notes and artist biographies here.
Silent Woods for cello and orchestra
Antonín Dvořák proved that it was perfectly viable to use tunes and rhythms from folk music to write complex notated music – the sort that combined such tunes in conversation and opposition, transforming them in the process.
In Dvořák’s case, those tunes mostly came from what is now the Czech Republic. The composer was born some 40 miles north of Prague, studied performing and composition in that city and then worked as a viola player. He would make his name with a series of exhilarating concertos, symphonies and operas fuelled by native songs and dances.
Dvořák’s success led to a professorship at the Prague Conservatoire and saw him headhunted to run a similar institution in New York. Before he crossed the Atlantic, the composer organised a farewell concert tour of his home country for the early months of 1892. He would appear as a both pianist and composer and be accompanied by longtime colleagues Ferdinand Lachner (on violin) and Hanuš Wihan (on cello). The three planned to play 39 cities across what were then the territories of Bohemia and Moravia.
As he made preparations for the tour, Dvořák realised he lacked music for cello and piano for him and Wihan to play. The composer turned to his own set of six piano pieces entitled From the Bohemian Forest, plucking out the movement called ‘Klid’ and arranging it for cello and piano.
The title literally translates as ‘rest’, but the composer’s new publisher Fritz Simrock wisely concluded that a more evocative title would sell the piece and settled on the German word Waldesruhe, meaning ‘silent woods’.
As the title suggests, the piece is a dreamy romance – evocative of a forest at dusk in which the long-breathed melody sits perfectly on the cello. There is a livelier middle section, in the scrunchy key of C-sharp minor. In 1893, now an honorary New Yorker, Dvořák made a new arrangement of the piece that calls for full orchestral accompaniment, making particularly delicious use of winding woodwinds.
Rondo for cello and orchestra
Initially, Dvořák was sceptical when it came to the qualities of the cello as a solo instrument. He referred to its sound as “nasal” when playing high notes and “grumbling” when playing low ones.
Perhaps the composer’s time sitting next to cellos while playing the viola had coloured his judgment. Either way, he would eventually re-think that summation, and write a cello concerto for Wihan that has a special place in the hearts of cellists.
Silent Woods may have played a part in the cello concerto’s genesis. But so did another piece Dvořák rustled-up for the 1892 concert tour. This one was wholly original.
Dvořák wrote the Rondo in G minor for cello and piano on Christmas Day 1891, putting the finishing touches to it on 26 December. He labelled the score ‘Rondo for Professor Wihan’ – the cellist had been appointed a professor at the Prague Conservatory a few years earlier.
The Rondo was first performed, as part of the tour, in the town of Kladno on 6 January 1892 and was orchestrated the following year, at the same time as Silent Woods.
“… the solo cello is in control, leading the orchestra through various contrasting scenes…”
Knowing that he would soon be leaving his home (though only for a few years, it would turn out), Dvořák was keen that the music would have a distinctly local flavour. The shape and spirit of Czech folk music make themselves felt from the poised, minor-key dance that opens the piece, right through to its similarly ominous ending.
In between, the solo cello is in control – leading the orchestra through various contrasting scenes, each speaking of rustic village life, and ranging from the loving to the respectful and the tempestuous.
The music of this adventure-in-miniature is playful, virtuosic (for the cello) and full of conversational exchanges. It is also unfailingly elegant and exceptionally controlled, largely cleansed of the mud of the countryside.
Simrock, the savvy publisher who had suggested that the title Silent Woods may sell better than ‘Klid’, had been alerted to Dvořák’s talents by another composer, Johannes Brahms. Not long before, Brahms had written a piece for Simrock entitled Hungarian Dances. It sold like hot cakes.
“An artist has his country, in which he must have firm faith and an ardent heart…” Antonín Dvořák
Music like this – nationalism for an international audience – was in fashion. Many found the distinctive rhythms of folk music intoxicating, and asymmetrical folk-derived melodies refreshing, after all the perfection of Viennese classicism. Simrock correctly sensed that Dvořák’s music was heading in this direction in the 1870s, and wasted no time forging a relationship with the composer (or trying to).
First, Simrock published a set of Slavonic Dances for piano by Dvořák. They proved a wild success – so much so that he requested an orchestral version quickly afterwards. The two men disagreed when it came to Simrock’s ruthless sales techniques. He was sometimes economical with the truth and liked to pretend music was newer than it actually was, but the relationship proved mutually beneficial.
Besides, it wasn’t all about commerce. Simrock’s sense of the market perfectly matched Dvořák’s artistic project at the time. “An artist has his country, in which he must have firm faith and an ardent heart,” wrote the composer to the publisher. In 1879, Dvořák wrote a work that would affirm his faith in his country with charm and affection: the Czech Suite. After lingering a little to underline their worth, he finally offered the dances to Simrock for publication. The suite was first performed in Prague on 16 May 1879.
The five individual movements are based on dance rhythms from Bohemia, Moravia and Central Europe, and were inspired by the region’s landscape and way of life. Dvořák didn’t use indigenous, known melodies; instead, he employed rhythms and key-changes that were characteristic to certain dances.
The opening ‘Prelude’ uses a universal tool for presenting a wide-angle view of an open landscape: a drone or ‘pedal note’ (a long-held note in the bass). Here, the low drone specifically references the Czech variation on Scottish bagpipes known as ‘dudy’.
“Antonín Dvořák proved that it was perfectly viable to use tunes and rhythms from folk music to write complex notated music…”
Despite the static picture, the music remains mobile, coloured by the suggestion of birdsong in the background. The melody, first heard on strings before moving to the oboe, weaves around a confined space much like a Bohemian fiddle tune would.
The second movement is a ‘Polka’ – a dance of Czech origin (later adopted by Poland) with a distinctive da-da-daa rhythm. Dvořák’s polka is in two sections, each overlaying that rhythm with a distinctive melody.
Next comes a ‘Sousedská’ – a calm, swaying dance for pairs with a pronounced accent on the second beat of the bar. Here, it is imagined as a hybrid with a Classical minuet. The clarinet leads the dance before strings respond.
In the ‘Romance’, a flute drapes a long melody over a throbbing string accompaniment, a melody soon threaded into a conversation with other woodwind instruments. What feels languorous is also pregnant with pride and even protest.
That feeling explodes into being in the last movement. It is shaped as a ‘Furiant’ – a lively dance rapidly alternating two distinctive gaits: two-in-a-bar and three-in-a-bar. The rollicking cross-rhythms are enough to have Dvořák reach for trumpets and percussion.
Notes by Andrew Mellor © Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Mellor