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PROGRAM NOTES: PKF – Prague Philharmonic Orchestra

by Eric Bromberger

The Moldau (Vltava)

BEDŘICH SMETANA

Born March 2, 1824, Litomyšl, Czech Republic

Died May 12, 1884, Prague

Approximate Duration: 12 minutes

Two quite different forces combined to help create Smetana’s Moldau, one of the most popular orchestral works ever written. The first of these was Smetana’s own intense Czech nationalism. After three hundred years of German domination, Smetana and his fellow Czechs longed for their own homeland, an independent nation with its own language, customs, and heritage. That longing fired Smetana’s music, just as it would later shape the music of his countrymen Dvořák and Janáček. The other force was the music of Franz Liszt. Smetana was a friend of Liszt, and he particularly admired the Hungarian composer’s symphonic poems, brief orchestral works that set out to tell a tale in music. Smetana tried his hand at several symphonic poems based on literary topics (Shakespeare’s Richard III, Schiller’s Wallenstein, and others), but it was not until he turned to his own Czech heritage that the form came to memorable life for him. Between 1872 and 1879, when he was in his sixties, Smetana composed a cycle of six symphonic poems on Czech subjects–its landscape, heroic past, and legends–and collected them under the title Má Vlast: “My Fatherland.”

This was a miserable time for Smetana personally. He had fallen into his horrifying final illness and found himself assailed by buzzing in his ears, skin rashes, disorientation, throat and ulcer problems, and–devastating to a composer– deafness. In the fall of 1874, while working on The Moldau (which would be the second of the symphonic poems that make up Má Vlast), Smetana went completely deaf in his right ear and asked to be removed from his position as director of the Prague Provisional Theatre. His condition did not improve, and he gradually sank into complete deafness and insanity, dying in poverty ten years later. Yet there is not a trace of what must have been personal agony in Má Vlast, which rings with a pride in his Czech identity. Smetana pressed on in the face of increasing deafness and disorientation to complete The Moldau on November 18, 1874, and the first performance took place in Prague on April 4, 1876.

Some of the movements of Má Vlast focus on historical figures or settings, but The Moldau is a portrait of the great river that begins in the Bohemian forests southwest of Prague, runs north through that city, and eventually joins the Elbe and flows to the sea at Hamburg. The Czech name for this river is the Vltava (pronounced as three even syllables: “Vol-ta-vah”), and the irony of course is that a piece of music written expressly to help encourage the cause of Czech independence from Germany is best known under the German name for that river, Moldau.

Smetana left a detailed program note that explains what each of the eight sections of The Moldau depicts, and these events can be easily followed. Legend has it that the Moldau begins deep in the forest as two rivulets–one cold, one warm– flow together to form the headwaters of the mighty river. The Moldau opens with these two delicate rivulets (the flute is the cold source, the clarinet the warm), which gradually intertwine and begin to flow. Smetana marks this beginning lusingando, an Italian term that does not translate easily into English: “charming, coaxing”–the literal translation– catches only some of what Smetana wants from this delicate beginning. The rivulets combine, and now Smetana gives us the theme of the river itself, a great soaring melody in E minor for the violins that will become the backbone of this music. As the river flows toward Prague, it passes different scenes, and Smetana describes these in detail: a hunt in the woods, with the sound of hunting horns ringing out, is followed by a peasant wedding with its charming folk-dance. The opening rivulets return to introduce a quiet episode as nymphs play on the moonlit waters of the Moldau; muted strings cast a mist over the water, and Smetana makes another nod to his homeland’s past when he notes that in the water “many fortresses and castles are reflected as witnesses to the past glories of knighthood and the vanished warlike fame of bygone ages”–these heroic echoes are heard as distant fanfares for the horns. Next, the river smashes its way through the St. John’s Rapids and proceeds grandly out on the plain toward Prague, with the Moldau theme now transformed into E major. The music reaches a climax as the river flows past Vyšehrad, the site of a fortress established in the ninth century and regarded as the birthplace of Prague. Its heroic journey complete, the river flows on, and it is worth quoting Smetana on the ending: “Welcomed by the time-honored fortress, Vyšehrad, it sweeps past the quais and under the bridges of the city, to vanish in the dim distance where the poet’s gaze can no longer follow.

Concerto in B Minor for Violoncello and Orchestra, Opus 104

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK

Born September 8, 1841, Nelahozeves, Czech Republic

Died May 1, 1904, Prague

Approximate Duration: 38 minutes

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is the greatest ever written for that instrument, and so it comes as a surprise to learn that Dvořák had been reluctant to write a concerto for cello. He had sketched a cello concerto when he was only 24 and had been so dissatisfied that he did not even bother to orchestrate it. He came away from that experience with reservations about what he considered the cello’s “limitations”: a somewhat indistinct sound in its lowest register and a thin sound in its highest, as well as the problem of making a lowpitched instrument cut through the weight of a full orchestra. But–encouraged by his cellist friend Hanuš Wihan and by hearing Victor Herbert play his own Second Cello Concerto in New York in 1894–Dvořák wrote this concerto very quickly during his final year in the United States. He began work on November 8, 1894, just after resuming his teaching duties at the National Conservatory of Music in New York, and completed the draft of the score the following February 9, two months before he returned for good to his Czech homeland.

Dvořák’s solutions to the problems posed by a cello concerto are ingenious. Rather than scaling back the orchestra to balance it more equitably with the soloist, he instead writes for a huge orchestra, adding three trombones and tuba to the texture, as well as such “exotic” instruments as piccolo and triangle. He then scores the concerto with great imagination, alternating grand gestures that use all his forces with leanlyscored passages in which only a handful of instruments accompany the soloist. The concerto was a triumph at its première in London on March 19, 1896, and it has justly remained the most popular of cello concertos ever since. When Brahms, then only a year from his death, examined the score to Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, he exclaimed: “Why on earth didn’t I know one could write a violoncello concerto like this? If I had only known I would have written one long ago!”

The lengthy opening Allegro is in sonata form, and Dvořák follows custom by introducing both main themes before the soloist enters: the quiet opening tune, a dark, march-like figure for clarinets, soon builds up to Grandioso restatement, preparing the way for the glorious second subject, a soaring melody perfectly suited to the solo horn that announces it (Dvořák’s biographer John Clapham reported that the composer always grew emotional when playing over this theme). The solo cello makes an impressive entrance on the opening march theme, and Dvořák exploits fully the lyric and dramatic possibilities of the instrument in this movement. There is, however, no empty brilliance here (the concerto significantly has no cadenza), and the virtuosity of the solo part is central to the music rather than an end in itself. After so much inspired lyricism, the movement drives–surprisingly–to a ringing, heroic close.

The Adagio ma non troppo is in ABA form, with woodwinds introducing the gentle opening section in G major before the soloist takes it up. The G-minor central episode quotes from Dvořák’s own song “Leave me alone with my dreams,” originally composed in 1887-88. This song had been a favorite of one of Dvořák’s pupils, Josefina Čermáková Kaunitzova, with whom he had fallen in love while he was a young man. She had not responded to that love, and Dvořák later married her sister. Now, as he was writing this concerto in New York City, he learned that Josefina was seriously ill with heart disease in Prague and–remembering her fondness for this song–included its wistful melody in this movement. The end of the movement is extended, and Dvořák scores this very carefully, sometimes reducing the orchestra to just a few instruments. Matters rise to a menacing climax in C minor before the music falls away to end peacefully in G major.

Over a steady pulse from lower strings, horns announce the main subject of the rondo-finale, which the soloist quickly picks up. This rondo is both lively and lyric, and its episodes are varied. Near the close comes the most remarkable passage in the entire concerto. Shortly after Dvořák returned to Prague in 1895, Josefina died. Stunned, the composer returned from her funeral and rewrote the ending of the concerto, adding a quiet sixty-measure section that recalls the main theme of the first movement and the song-theme from the second movement that Josefina had loved so much. This makes the ending of the concerto particularly moving, and it was crucially important to its creator. When Hanuš Wihan tried to add a cadenza at just this point, Dvořák erupted, writing to his publisher: “The finale concludes gradually, diminuendo– like a faint breath–with reminiscences of the first and second movement–the solo fades away in a pp–then the orchestra surges up and ends in a turbulent tone. This was my idea and I cannot abandon it.”

It is an effective ending. Dvořák recalls his sister-in-law one final time as the cello sings this sad melody, its final measures trailing off over quiet timpani accompaniment, and then–with this behind him–he winds the music up and rushes
it suddenly to the smashing close.

Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Opus 88
Approximate Duration: 36 minutes

The summer of 1889 was an unusually happy and productive time for Dvořák. At age 48, he found himself a successful composer with a large and devoted family. Earlier that year, his opera The Jacobin had been premièred, and now he took his family to their summer retreat at Vysoka in the countryside south of Prague. There, amid the rolling fields and forests of his homeland, Dvořák could escape the pressures of the concert season, enjoy the company of his wife and children, and indulge one of his favorite pastimes–raising pigeons.

Dvořák also composed a great deal that summer. He completed his Piano Quartet in E-flat Major on August 10, writing to a friend that “melodies pour out of me” and lamenting “If only one could write them down straight away! But there–I must go slowly, only keep pace with my hand, and may God give the rest.” A few weeks later, on August 25, he made the first sketches for a new symphony, and once again the melodies poured out of him: he began the actual composition on September 6, and on the 13th the first movement was done. The second took three days, the third one day, and the entire symphony had been sketched by September 23. The orchestration was completed on November 8, and Dvořák himself led the triumphant première of his Eighth Symphony in Prague on February 2, 1890. From the time Dvořák had sat down before a sheet of blank paper to the completion of the full score, only 75 days had passed.

From the moment of the première, audiences have loved this symphony (including one very unusual audience: Dvořák conducted this symphony before 30,000 Czechs on an all-Czech program at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893). Surprisingly, the Eighth Symphony has come in for a tough time from certain critics, who find much to complain about. One finds the music plain and claims to hear signs of haste in its composition, another criticizes the music’s harmonic sequences, while yet another calls the finale a “not altogether satisfactory design.” All seem baffled by the structure of the movements.

Listening to these charges, one might conclude that Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony is a disaster. Actually, this is one of the loveliest pieces of music ever written. It is quite true that Dvořák went his own way in writing this symphony rather than attempting to compose a “correct” symphony, and that may be what bothered those critics; Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek noted that the composer himself felt that in this music he was trying to write “a work different from his other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.” One can love the Eighth Symphony without knowing any of this, but there is a fierce pleasure in watching Dvořák go his own way.

We feel this from the first instant. “Symphony in G Major,” says the title page, but the beginning is firmly in the “wrong” key of G minor, and this will be only the first of many harmonic surprises. It is also a gorgeous beginning, with the cellos singing their long wistful melody. But–another surprise: this theme will have little to do with the actual progress of the first movement. We soon arrive at what appears to be the true first subject, a flute theme of an almost pastoral innocence (commentators appear unable to resist describing this theme as “birdlike”), and suddenly we have slipped into G major. There follows a wealth of themes–someone counted six separate ideas in the opening minutes of this symphony. Dvořák develops these across the span of the opening movement, and the cellos’ somber opening melody returns at key moments: quietly to begin the development and then blazed out triumphantly by the trumpets at the stirring climax.

The two middle movements are just as free. The Adagio is apparently in C Minor, but it begins in E-flat major with dark and halting string phrases; the middle section flows easily on a relaxed woodwind tune in C major in which some have heard the sound of cimbalon and a village band. A violin solo leads to a surprisingly violent climax before the movement falls away to its quiet close. The Allegretto grazioso opens with a soaring waltz in G minor that dances nimbly along its 3/8 meter; the charming center section also dances in 3/8 time, but its dotted rhythms produce a distinctive lilt here. The movement concludes with some nice surprises: a blistering coda (Molto vivace) whips along a variant of the lilting center section tune, but Dvořák has now transformed its triple meter into a propulsive 2/4. The movement rushes on chattering woodwinds right up to its close, where it concludes suddenly with a hushed string chord.

The finale is a variation movement–sort of. It opens with a stinging trumpet fanfare, but this fanfare was an afterthought on Dvořák’s part, added after the rest of the movement was complete. Cellos announce the noble central theme (itself derived from the flute theme of the first movement), and a series of variations follow, including a spirited episode for solo flute. But suddenly the variations vanish: Dvořák throws in an exotic Turkish march full of rhythmic energy, a completely separate episode that rises to a great climax based on the ringing trumpet fanfare from the opening. Gradually things calm down, and the variations resume as if this turbulent storm had never blown through. Near the end comes some lovely writing for strings, and a raucous, joyous coda–itself one final variation of the main theme–propels this symphony to a rousing close.

Are the critics’ charges about this symphony true? For the most part, probably yes. Do they matter? No. In this music, Dvořák followed his own instincts–“with individual thoughts worked out in a new way”–and audiences find the Eighth Symphony as lovely and exciting today as they did when it was premièred over a century ago.