Czechmate Program Notes
LEOS JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Leoš Janáček was born in Hochwald (Hukvaldy) in Northern Moravia on July 3, 1854, and died on August 12, 1928 in Moravska Ostrava. He composed Taras Bulba from 1915 to 1918, finally concluding it on March 29, 1918. The first performance took place in Brno on October 9, 1921, with František Neumann conducting. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (chimes, triangle, snare drum, suspended cymbals), harp, organ, and strings. Duration is about 23 minutes.
Not until he was fifty years old did Leos Janácek have a more than local reputation. Born and raised in the Moravian region of what is now Czechoslovakia, he was not privy to the powerful cultural forces in Prague. Prague, after all, is Bohemian, and the cultural differences were such that a Moravian artist there would seem a little like a country cousin, certainly not a cosmopolite. Though Janácek studied for a time in Prague, and later in the important musical centers of Leipzig and Vienna, he returned to Brno, the capital of Moravia, at the age of twenty‑seven to begin a career largely devoted to teaching. From this time on he carried out a fitfully active career as a composer, sometimes giving up entirely over temporary disillusionments. The genres to which he seemed most drawn—or, at any rate, those in which remained active throughout his life—were the male chorus and the opera. And it was as an opera composer that Janácek finally achieved world fame.
Having said this, however, it is necessary to admit that his late orchestral works are full of marvels, and, in the case of Taras Bulba of 1915, marvels that are almost operatic in character.
The tone poem is based on a somewhat gory novella by Gogol dealing with Cossack warriors in 15th-century Russia. The Cossacks on the story—particularly the title character and his two sons—place no particular value on human life, including their own. Gogol may have intended this story as an ironic commentary on the debased ethics of a military culture.
For purposes of understanding the references in the tone poem, it is sufficient to know that Taras Bulba has laid siege to the Polish city of Dubno. His younger son Andrei falls in love with a beautiful girl who, it turns out, is a Polish princess, and therefore the enemy. She is trapped inside Dubno, but Andrei finds a secret entrance to the city so that he can join her. During the battle the Taras Bulba’s Cossacks find Andrei riding at the head of the Polish cavalry. The father drags him from his horse and shoots him dead.
Later, however, the Poles gain the upper hand and capture Taras Bulba’s elder son Ostap. The father manages to enter Warsaw secretly and there helplessly observes the barbarous execution of his son. He undertakes a campaign of revenge, laying waste to villages and churches, killing civilians as well as soldiers. Eventually captured himself, he is tied to a tree and burned alive, defiantly cursing his enemies and prophesying an ultimate Russian victory.
Janacek’s tone poem, composed in the middle of the First World War (when the Czechs were struggling for national survival and independence) has been called a patriotic and a pan-Slavic work, though Gogol’s story in fact deals with Slavic groups warring with one another. But the vividness of the music is such that we can happily dispense with attempts to connect specific musical events to details in the story. The general outlines are clear enough.
The first movement (“Andrei’s Death”) is the closest to a narrative account, because, in addition to the scenes of death that dominate the rest of the score, we clearly have a depiction of the beautiful Polish princess and a passionate love scene. After this, though, Andrei’s violent death at his father’s hands is the topic, with only the faintest dying recollection of his love.
The second movement is the shortest and most violent in depicting “Ostap’s death” by dismemberment. It begins with an assertive theme that may represent Ostap’s fighting spirit, and galloping rhythms certainly highlight the cavalry action of the story. The movement is a short one, with concentrated attention on the themes of Ostap’s heroism and his violent death.
The last movement is the longest and most elaborate, possibly depicting Taras Bulba’s furious devastation of the countryside, and a moment of serenity, but this is broken by a wild Polish dance (presumably celebrating their capture of their enemy). Here, in glorious sonorities with bells and eventually organ, Taras Bulba prophesies a great future for Russia (Janacek may have chosen this subject matter because Russia was the Czech ally in the fight for independence from Austria—though, of course, by the end of the war, Russia itself would fall to revolutionary Bolshevik fervor.) Still, the coda brings a glorious, heroic sound to close the story of violence, war, treason, and heroism that has preceded it.
GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)
Five Songs to Poems of Friedrich Rückert
Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt (Kalište) near the Moravian border of Bohemia on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. He composed his five independent settings of texts by Friedrich Rückert during the late summer of 1901 and the summer of 1902 (details appear below). They were eventually published with his last two Wunderhorn songs as “Seven Songs of the Later Period,” but in fact they are unrelated to the Wunderhorn songs and are usually performed as a separate group. Each is also scored for a different ensemble. In the order in which they will be performed here, the instrumentation is as follows: Liebst du um Schönheit: two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, harp, and strings; Ich atmet’ einen Linden Duft: flute, oboe, clarinet, two bassoons, three horns, harp, celesta, violins, and violas; Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder: one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, plus harp and muted strings; Um Mitternacht: two each of flutes, oboes (one an oboe d’amore), clarinets, bassoons (plus contrabassoon), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and piano, but no strings; Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen: oboe, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, harp, and strings.
Broadly speaking, Mahler’s career as a song composer falls into two parts, and the division is echoed in his career as a symphonist, because throughout his life song composition fed symphony composition. During the closing years of the nineteenth century, Mahler turned time and again to a collection of folk poems (many of them rather heavily edited, but nonetheless mostly going back to original folk sources) called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). The songs he composed to these texts, and sometimes the texts themselves, were filled with the greatest variety and vivacity, martial airs, hearty jests, fanfares, dance rhythms, and sentimental sighs. And his symphonies became “an entire world” (an image that Mahler himself used to refer to his Third Symphony).
Composition of the Fourth Symphony—the last to include extensive use of Wunderhorn material—spanned the very close of the nineteenth and opening of the twentieth centuries. And, as if turning over a new leaf with the new century, Mahler wrote just two more Wunderhorn songs (Revelge and Der Tamboursg’sell) and then turned definitively away from that collection as a source of song texts or musical inspiration. For the next decade his favorite poet was Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), a highly literary lyricist who learned Persian from the same Viennese professor who had awakened Goethe’s interest in the Persian poet Hafiz and who thereupon began to translate oriental poets and imitate them in his own work. (Rückert later learned Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese as well and provided translations of texts from all of those languages.) No doubt this aspect of his art played some role in attracting Mahler’s attention to poets still farther afield and preparing the ground for the Chinese poetry of Das Lied von der Erde. But Rückert also wrote highly personal lyrics of a more intimate sort, as in Liebesfrühling (Springtime of Love), published in 1822 and dedicated to his young wife. This was a source of song texts for Schubert and Schumann some eighty years before Mahler turned to it for his own purposes. When two of his children died in 1833, Rückert wrote the Kindertotenlieder in their memory, five poems of which Mahler composed eight decades later in one of his most overwhelmingly expressive compositions.
When Mahler turned to Rückert’s poetry, he also turned to a musical style of far greater intimacy and transparency. This, too, played an important role in the symphonies he composed from No. 5 onward.
Kindertotenlieder was composed and published as a cycle, to be performed as an entity with a specific order of songs. The other five Rückert songs, though, were not designed to be necessarily performed together. Mahler himself changed the order of performance virtually every time he appeared in a performance, and he sometimes chose to omit one or more of the songs. In short, the five independent Rückert songs to be heard here are simply five small masterpieces of Mahler’s genius which may be heard together, or individually, in whatever order the performers choose. Further discussion of each song here will follow the order in which they are to be performed.
Mahler composed Liebst du um Schönheit sometime in the summer of 1902, and certainly before August 10, because that is the day on which Alma opened a piano score of Siegfried and discovered the manuscript (in the version with piano accompaniment), which Mahler had copied out and left there for her to find. It was therefore the last of these five songs to be composed, and it came almost a year after the other four. That fact, combined with the directness of its message to Alma, might explain why Mahler treated it differently than the others. He himself did not orchestrate this song. When he signed a contract with the publisher C.F. Kahnt for the publication of the songs, on April 15, 1905, the contract covered only four songs.
Mahler did not send Liebst du um Schönheit nine months later, and then only in the version with piano accompaniment. It was apparently after his death that an employee of the Kahnt firm, Max Puttmann, produced the orchestral version we know today. (Kahnt did not attempt to conceal this fact; Puttmann’s name appeared on the first edition as orchestrator, but it somehow got dropped from later editions, and for some years Mahler was believed to be responsible for the scoring.)
The song is a delicate expression of love, quite possibly the simplest and most direct song Mahler ever wrote, to a poem that expresses the age-old sentiment, “Don’t love me for any particular reason, for that may change and with it your love; but love for love itself.”
Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft was composed at Mahler’s summer residence at Maiernigg in June and July 1901. It is music of extraordinary transparency, with an intimate orchestra from which even the lower strings have been banished. The tranquil clarity of the music, the delicacy of which matches the delicacy of the fragrance from the sprig of linden tree that the singer has received, looks forward to the second movement of Das Lied von der Erde.
Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder was composed at the same time as the foregoing song. Mahler shared Rückert’s disinclination to show work in progress to anyone, even his most intimate friends, and he found this poem therefore very much to his liking. Indeed, he told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner that he “could have written it himself.” The mood of the song is lightly capricious, and it is over in a trice. Here, as in Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft, the poet makes a play on words (the homonym Lieder, “songs,” and Lider, “eyelids”), so that the listener who cannot see the text printed interpret the opening line as “Do not look into my eyes.” The accompaniment offers a light suggestion of the constant buzzing of the bees that form the principal image of the second stanza.
Um Mitternacht was also composed in the summer of 1901. It dispenses entirely with the strings, but calls for an unusually large (for this group of songs) wind ensemble. For four of its five stanzas, the song expresses feelings of dark torment, doubt, and despair, yet with an astonishingly spare use of the available instruments; then, in the final stanza, Mahler breaks forth into the major mode and a chorale style (reminiscent of the similar stylistic transition the closes the Second Symphony).
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is regarded by common consent as Mahler’s greatest single song. We also know that it was composed later in 1901 than the other three Rückert songs of that year; one of the manuscript sketches is dated August 16, and it must have been finished some time after that. Here the delicacy and chamber-music transparency of the orchestration, as well as the overall mood of tranquility, are striking. Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange reminds us that this was one of the first pieces he composed in the isolated Häuschen (“little house”) that he had built at Maiernigg specifically so that he could work far away from any chance noise made by family and friends. The song expresses a sense of contented self-sufficiency, and—depending on how the reader or listener wishes to stress the words of the closing lines—it can express either (as de La Grange puts it) “a happy artist isolated from the world in his art or a happy lover isolated in his love.” But this is an isolation that is all tranquility and contentment, an easy giving up of the world’s noise and brilliance for the peace that fills the song’s close.
Liebst du um Schönheit
Liebst du um Schönheit,
Liebst du um Jugend,
Liebst du um Schätze,
Liebst du um Liebe,
If You Love for Beauty’s Sake
If you love for beauty’s sake,
If you love for the sake of Youth,
If you love for the sake of treasures,
If you love for the sake of love,
Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft
Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!
Wie lieblich ist der Lindenduft,
I Breathed a Delicate Fragrance
I breathed a delicate* fragrance.
How lovely is that fragrance of linden,
* The entire poem is a pun on the word Linde or Lindenbaum, referring to a linden tree, and the adjective lind, “delicate” or “gentle.” One frequently encounters translations of English origin which render Linde or Lindenbaum as “lime tree”; this is a Britishism that confuses matters for us; the “lime tree” of English usage is not the citrus fruit tree (Citrus aurantifolia), which is semi-tropical and, of course, does not grow naturally in northern Europe. It refers instead to any tree of the linden family (genus Tilia); the American variety is commonly called basswood.
Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder
Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!
Biene, wenn sie Zellen bauen,
Do Not Gaze into my Songs
Do not gaze into my songs;
Bees, when they build cells,
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen
Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel
I Have Gotten Lost from the World
I have gotten lost from the world
Not that it concerns me at all,
I am dead to the world’s tumult
—English translation by Steven Ledbetter
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 6 in D, Opus 60
Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves (Mühlhausen), Bohemia, near Prague, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He composed the Sixth between August 27 and October 15, 1880, dedicating it to the conductor Hans Richter. The first performance took place in Prague on March 25, 1881, with Adolf Cech conducting. The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), pairs of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 41 minutes.
Dvořák was a slow developer, though he eventually reached the heights of international fame. His beginnings could hardly have been more unpromising as the son of a village butcher and innkeeper in rural Bohemia. He heard music only from traveling musicians and village bands, inevitably of mediocre ability. He took lessons from the village schoolmaster and played violin locally. By the age of twelve he had already left school with the aim of apprenticing as a butcher.
Since Bohemian was only a local language, it behooved him to learn the language of the empire in which it stood, so he went to the nearby town of Zloniče to learn German. The teacher there doubled as the town organist and was able to offer the musical boy instruction in violin, viola, piano, organ, and practical keyboard harmony. Practical experience as a copyist preparing parts for the town orchestra gave him the opportunity to get at music from the inside. At one point, he slipped in his own work, a polka, but discovered at the first rehearsal—by way of lot of awful dissonances—that he needed to learn how to write the parts for transposing instruments correctly!
By this time his musicality was so evident that an uncle offered to support his education. He entered the Prague Organ School, where he aimed at becoming an organist and church musician (he was a devout Catholic throughout his life). In the Bohemian capital, he was exposed to a far wider range of music than he could have gotten to know in his native village, both as listener and performer. He played viola in the pick-up orchestras of several musical organizations in Prague. Among his most important experiences in that position was a concert in February 1863 in which Richard Wagner conducted his own music (Dvořák became an ardent Wagnerian for a number of years, and his early music often shows the signs of this enthusiasm). From 1866 the conductor of the orchestra was the most important Czech nationalist composer Bedřich Smetana, who opened Dvořák’s ears and mind to the possibility of celebrating his own culture in music.
For most of the next decade he lived abstemiously, working hard as a teacher and a violist, all the while composing constantly, though few of his pieces made it to performance, and none found their way to any circles of influence. But the practical experience of active music-making stood him in very good stead when he was finally discovered. By the middle of 1874 he had composed a large quantity of chamber music, four symphonies (of which he thought he had lost the first forever—it was only found again after his death), several short orchestral works, two operas, a patriotic cantata (Heirs of the White Mountain, which had been performed successfully), and a large number of songs.
In July 1874 he submitted fifteen of his compositions (including the Third and Fourth symphonies) to be considered for a governmental stipend offered to “young, poor, and talented painters, sculptors, and musicians, in the Austrian half of the [Hapsburg] Empire.” This was a fateful act. It brought Dvořák’s music to the attention of three important men who would play significant roles in his life: Johann Herbeck, conductor of the Vienna State Opera, the leading Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, and, most important of all, Johannes Brahms, who became a mentor and friend until the end of his days. Dvořák was a winner in 1874, 1876, and 1877. In this last year, Brahms sent a warmly positive letter to his publisher Simrock, urging the publication of Dvořák ‘s ten Moravian Duets for two sopranos and piano. These were a good bet as a first publication of music by an unknown composer, because they would recommend themselves to thousands of households for home music-making. Brahms noted that “Dvořák has written every possible thing, operas (Bohemian), symphonies, quartets, and pianoforte pieces. Anyway, he is a very talented man. Almost poor! And I ask you to consider this!”
The far-flung Austrian empire contained many different ethnic groups, and it was just then very popular to offer music in the style of one or another of the “nationalities” of the empire. Simrock accepted the Moravian Duets and commissioned a set of Slavonic Dances. Both were published in 1878, and Dvořák’s merely local reputation suddenly became international. The duets and the dances were hugely successful, making a great deal of money for the publisher, who asked Dvořák for more and more works of the same kind.
But Dvořák wanted to return to the symphony. He had composed his Fifth in 1875 and it had been performed in Prague in 1879. But he wanted to write a work for Vienna, where the great Hans Richter promised to perform it after the huge success of one of his Slavonic Rhapsodies there. He composed the Sixth between late August and mid-October 1880. When he played through it (at the piano) for Richter, the conductor was so excited that he kissed the composer after each movement. The performance was to take place in Vienna on December 26, 1880, but the members of the Vienna Philharmonic refused to play a piece by a little-known Czech composer two seasons in a row! So the honor of the premiere went to Adolf Cech, who led a performance in Prague on March 25, 1881. Nonetheless Dvořák retained the dedication to Richter, whose enthusiasm had helped spark the symphony’s creation.
Simrock published the D-major Symphony in 1882, but he insisted on calling it Symphony No. 1 (as the first published of Dvořák’s works in the genre), thereby beginning a history of confusion that only got sorted out in the late 20th century, when all nine Dvořák symphonies were published and recorded in the proper order.
Dvořák not only learned from his own previous experience in symphonic composition, he also clearly studied closely the music of his mentor Brahms, who had composed a D-major symphony (the Second) in 1877. There are ways in which the Dvořák Sixth suggests echoes of Brahms: the new intricacy of thematic contrapuntal textures, for example, and the fact that he does not make the beginning of his recapitulations the moment of greatest volume and drama, but reserves that for the codas of the first and last movements. From Brahms, too, Dvořák learned how to connect his ideas, so that they seem to flow naturally, organically from one to the other. Yet at the same time, the work is without question that of Dvořák, who remains the unspoiled child of nature, always direct and unselfconscious in his directness.
As with the Brahms Second, Dvořák uses the sunny opening theme as a mine from which he extracts a large part of the material—often as little as a motive of two or three notes—from which he builds a sizeable and glorious movement. The richness of the exposition turns mysterious and tense during much of the development section, which carries us to a distant harmonic world, only to tumble headlong back home to the recapitulation. This is entirely regular (repeating both the first and second themes, as expected), but then, rather than dying away, Dvořák takes us to a new level of sunlight to end the movement with a brilliant burst of energy.
The Adagio suggests in its opening gestures a reference to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony but Dvořák here consciously avoids Beethoven’s emphasis on two contrasting themes (and their contrasting keys) and makes the entire movement a remarkable cogitation on a single theme, with interludes that are further considerations of the main material. It flows easily past the listener, but the more often we hear it the more subtle it becomes.
The third movement is formally a Scherzo, but Dvořák notes that his material is in the Czech dance form of the Furiant, in which the triple meter is filled with constant shifts, which are easy enough to imagine if you think a series of beats as follows (moving evenly and rapidly), in which every beat “one” (in boldface) is strongly accented:
1 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 1 – 2 | 1 – 2 – 3 – 1 -2 – 3
It is a feature of much of Dvořák’s music, and it delivers a great rhythmic punch. The Trio is lighter, less rhythmically driven, and almost devoid of the furiant rhythm, which comes back full-force for the return of the opening material.
Possibly in another bow to Brahms, Dvořák begins his finale pianissimo, but it soon grows to a glorious symphonic movement replete with a dance-like character, yet with the thematic material fully developed along the way. The grandiose coda begins with the entire orchestra dropping out to leave the violins madly cascading to a new presentation of the main theme, now fragmented in a Presto tempo. Gradually the full sonority of the orchestra carries the work to its sonorous close.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)