Dvorák's symphonic poems were written late in life. Presented here,
the two non-programatic works: My Home and The Hero's Song
bracket the four tone poems that are from the macabre poetry of Karl Jaromir
Erben published as The Garland in 1853.
Dvorák included the opening work My Home in an 1894
concert that premiered his Symphony From the New World (and he had
previously conducted the Overture in America.) It is a lively piece, with
plenty of nationalistic fervour, based on a tune by Frantisek Skroup entitled
'My Home' and a Czech folk-song 'In the Farmyard'.
Dvorák had been attracted to the poetry of Erben for many years but
it was not until all the Symphonies and all the other orchestral works for
which he is principally known were behind him, that he wrote this series
of four colourful orchestral ballads. In each case, Dvorák followed
the narrative and allowed the stories to dictate the shape of his music.
The melodic line is strongest in The Golden Spinning Wheel but throughout
all of these symphonic poems, the characterisation, atmosphere and narrative
writing is of a very high order. Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish
Natioanl Orchesta deliver spellbinding performances.
The Water Goblin is seen in the opening bars 'sitting on a
poplar branch by the edge of the lake in pale moonlight'. Dvorák's
colouration, at first, is restricted to the innocence of brighter woodwind
and high strings but soon darker hues creep in and we are aware that the
Goblin has a malevolent streak. The scene changes to a house nearby where
the daughter stubornly and against her mother's wishes, wants to go to the
lake to wash her clothes. In the middle of this chore a plank beneath the
girl splinters sending her to the bottom of the lake where the Goblin claims
her and makes her his wretched wife. Her only consolation is their half-goblin
baby. The girl begs to be released to see her mother. The Water Goblin grants
her wish but tells her she must return before the eveneing bells ring. In
a lento assai episode, the daughter, heavy-hearted, on trombones and
cellos, is reunited with her mother, querulous on the flute. However a storm
arises on the lake and the Water Goblin reappears. Wind and water rage in
angry chromatic gusts - and worse, the evening bells begin to toll. The Goblin's
three-note rhythm is hammered out furiously in three vicious chords as the
Goblin throws the decapitated body of the baby against the door. Unlike the
Erben poem, Dvorák's ballad ends compassionately as he commiserates
with the mother and daughter while the Water Goblin myseriously disappears
in the lake.
The Golden Spinning Wheel opens with a horn fanfare (nicely
distanced) over insistent galloping triplet rhythms as the King rides in
the forest where he meets the peasant girl, Dornicka, who interrupts her
spinning to give him a drink of water. Of course they fall in love to one
of Dvorák's captivating romantic melodies. Later the King returns
to instruct Dornicka's stepmother to take her to his castle but the stepmother
who is represented by a sinister variation of the King's horseback theme
has other ideas. She and her own daughter, in a grisly scherzo, kill Dornicka
and make off to the Castle taking with them Dornicka's feet, hands and eyes.
The King accepts the daughter as Dornicka and they celebrate their wedding
with a polka based on his horseback theme. After a passionate love scene,
the King goes off to the wars to the distant sound of military music. Later,
a mysterious old man discovers the remains of Dornicka's body. He sends a
boy on three separate errands to persude the false Queen to part with Dornicka's
feet in return for a golden spinning wheel, then her hands for a golden distaff,
and finally her eyes for a golden spindle. He then restores the missing parts
to Dornicka's body and she returns to life to a tender violin melody. When
the King returns, the false Queen is exposed as the golden spinning wheel
sings of the Queen's and her mother's evil treachery. All ends happily when
the King and Dornicka are reunited to passionate, rapturous music
The Noon Witch is shorter and more compact than the others.
A harrassed mother threatens her young child (clarinet theme) with the Noon
Witch when she is irritated by the toy cockerel he is playing with (oboe).
When he persists she becomes exasperated and the Noon Witch, a familiar scary
figure in Bohemian folklore, actually appears (an ominous entry on bass
clarinet). "Give me your child," she demands but the mother thoroughly alarmed
runs off clutching her little child. The Witch pursues them. The Witch's
motif develops into a wild frenzied dance as the mother screams and collapses.
In the next episode the father returns home to find, to his horror, his wife
unconscious and the child lying dead beneath her as the music breaks into
a passionate expression of his anguish.
The Wood Dove opens with a muted funeral procession, and flutes
and violins introduce the pretty young widow who initially seems appropriately
demure. However soon oboe, trumpet flutes and violins (in a particularly
scathing expression) tell us that the young lady is not that grief-stricken
and will soon be comforted. A handsome young man appears and it is not long
before they are wed. The central section of the tone poem celebrates their
wedding with a typical Dvorák C major scherzo with a more relaxed
trio. Later, from an oak tree that has grown over the first husband's grave,
a wood dove sings mournfully - an eerie combination of rustling harp and
strings, warbling tremolando flutes and a plangent oboe. A shocked clarinet
call signals the widow's guilt (she had poisoned her first husband). In her
emorse she drowns herself. Though Erben has no pity for her, Dvorák
compassionately forgives her by recalling the song of the wood dove as the
The Hero's Song was the last orchestral work that Dvorák
composed. It has no specific programme but we may deduce that it is about
a hero who surmounts an early trauma and goes from strength to strength and
from victory to triumph. The music is more appealing in its quieter
folk-material-inspired stretches rather than for its bombast.
The documentation for the album is excellent. Gerald Larner's exemplary notes,
from which I have liberally quoted, are learned yet very readable.