By David Levy

Dance of the Comedians from “The Bartered Bride” Bedřich Smetana

The Czech composer, conductor and critic Bedřich Smetana was born in Litomyšl on March 2, 1824, and died in Prague on May 12, 1884. Widely viewed as the most important Czech nationalist composer of the 19th century, he wrote eight operas, including The Bartered Bride (Prodaná nevěsta) to a libretto by Karel Sabina, which was first performed in a two-act version at the Provisional Theatre in Prague, on May 30, 1866. Smetana revised it, expanding it to three acts in 1870. Its brilliant “Overture” and the “Dance of the Comedians (Skocná)” from Act III have gained popularity throughout the world, whereas the opera itself is performed relatively rarely outside of the Czech lands.

If one seeks to find the origin of an indigenous Czech nationalist concert music, one must start with Smetana, whose six symphonic poems, “Má vlast (My Homeland),” and especially the second one, “Vltava (The Moldau),” have achieved international approbation and frequent performances. Each of those six movements includes a theme called Vyšehrad (also the title of the first movement), representing the imposing castle of the Czech kings in Prague that overlooks the city. Within its cemetery of honor, one will find the graves of the two greatest figures of Czech music — Smetana and Dvořák.

Smetana’s comic opera is filled with polkas and furiants that lend it its distinctive national flavor. “The Dance of the Comedians” is another Czech national dance, the rapid duple meter Skocná, that takes place in the opera’s third act. Written in the form of a rondo, its high spirits and rapid-fire violin work never fail to thrill audiences.

Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 53 (B. 96/108)
Antonín Dvořák

The Czech master Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, on Sept. 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. His Violin Concerto was composed in the summer of 1879 and it received its premiere in Prague on Oct. 14, 1883. The soloist was František Ondřiček with the Orchestra of the National Theater conducted by Mořic Anger. Both the Concerto and his earlier Romance for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 11 are staples in the violin repertory. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.

Joseph Joachim was arguably the most important figure in the world of 19th century German violinists. His name was associated with many famous concertos, most notably the one by Johannes Brahms, “Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello,” as well as the “Concerto No. 1 Max Bruch” (heard on last Thursday’s CSO concert), his own Concerto “in the Hungarian Style,” and almost the one by Antonín Dvořák.

Why almost? Thanks to the auspices and support of Brahms, Dvořák was introduced to some important figures, including the publisher Fritz Simrock and Joachim, who in 1879 had given the premiere performance of Brahms’ towering Violin Concerto. Dvořák was inspired to write his own concerto with the intention of dedicating it to Joachim, and set to work on it immediately. A letter from Joachim in November of that same year acknowledged receipt of the work, promising to begin studying it straight away. But the violinist was displeased with aspects of the work, leading Dvořák to destroy the early version and revise it in 1880, writing to Simrock (who ended up publishing much of Dvořák’s compositions), “According to Mr. Joachim’s wish I worked most carefully over the whole concerto, without missing a single bar. He will certainly be pleased by that. I put the greatest effort into it. The whole concerto has been transformed,” Dvořák wrote. “Besides retaining the themes, I composed several new ones. The whole concept of the work is different. I shall … give it immediately to Mr. Joachim in Berlin.”

Two years passed before Joachim responded to Dvořák, but he remained unwilling to perform it in public. Understandably, the composer lost patience. He ordered Simrock to publish it and arranged for its premiere to take place in Prague in 1883. Thus Joachim forfeited the opportunity to become fully associated with another great violin concerto.

The first movement, “Allegro ma non troppo,” begins vigorously in the orchestra, with the soloist joining in earlier than usual in concertos, a feature perhaps learned from Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto” (although another precedent that may have impressed Dvořák was the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto). The energy that launches that opening pervades much of the movement, which then leads directly into the second, a luxuriant Adagio ma non troppo filled with sumptuous lyricism that forms the emotional heart of the concerto. The dance-like finale (“Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo”) again mixes with lyrical moments, the beginning exhibiting the rhythmic vitality and complexity of the furiant, a Czech dance that presents piquant cross-rhythms. A contrasting section begins with a melancholic tune that eventually finds its own energy before yielding to the high spirits of the furiant, which brings the concerto to an exuberant ending.

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia, and died on Nov. 6, 1893, in Saint Petersburg. He remains one of the most popular composers of all time, beloved especially for his symphonies, ballets and concertos. His Symphony No. 5 received its first performance on Nov. 16, 1888, with the composer conducting.

Despite its initial lukewarm reception, it has become an important staple of the symphonic repertory. The work is scored for three flutes (piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies are separated by a hiatus of 11 years, during which time the composer underwent major personal crises, chief among them being his impetuous decision to wed Antonina Miliukova in 1877. This relationship led inevitably to a dissolving of the marriage, but it was only after Antonina gave birth to an illegitimate child in 1881 that Tchaikovsky had the legal grounds to file for divorce. Antonina entered into the marriage fully aware of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and it is hard to understand why either of them chose to become involved in that ill-fated relationship. Tsarist Russian society would never condone homosexuality, and perhaps the composer married in order to stave off rumors. That unhappy period in Tchaikovsky’s life resulted in few successful major compositions, with the Violin Concerto and Piano Trio being the most conspicuous exceptions. Confidence began to return to the composer in 1884, although his self-doubts about successfully handling larger multi-movement compositions such as symphonies persisted.

Tchaikovsky’s way of dealing with his doubts was to work through them, and the composition of his Fifth Symphony is a fine example of just how well he could do so. The four movements of the work are, as is the case with the Fourth Symphony, linked by a common motto. According to Gerald Abraham, this solemn theme was derived from the melody “Turn not into sorrow” from Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, which invites one to look for a programmatic interpretation of the symphony. As is the case with Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies, however, the real drama lies within the music itself. The first movement begins with an Andante introduction that presents the motto, played by two clarinets in their low register. The main body, “Allegro con anima,” introduces a melancholy dance theme in the clarinet and bassoon. Tchaikovsky creates a sense of growth by means of repetition, each time reinforcing the theme with additional orchestral colors until the entire orchestra joins in for its most powerful statement. This quickly dissipates and a wind-string dialogue ensues, followed by a lyrical, syncopated tune. The exposition closes with a brilliant flourish, which itself is continued by the horns to usher in the development section. The coda begins in similar fashion, but yields finally to the somber color of the bassoon, timpani, and lower strings.

The second movement, “Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza” (“with some liberties”) begins with the lower strings imitating the sounds of an organ playing a hymn. That frames the presentation of the popular tune sung by the solo horn. The violins and violas offer a second tune, which builds to a sonorous peak before relaxing into yet another new — more melancholy — theme in the clarinet, followed by the bassoon. The new theme also builds to a climax, but is interrupted by the motto from the first movement. Broad pizzicato chords prepare for a restatement of the horn theme, now taken over by the violins. Trombone and bassoons thunder the motto a last time before the movement comes to a close.

The Allegro moderato third movement is a waltz. A letter from Tchaikovsky to his patron, Madame Nadia von Meck, reveals that the lilt of this tune was inspired by the gait of a young man the composer saw while in Florence. The bassoon takes center stage with a lyrical solo comprised of wide leaps and syncopated rhythms. The bouncing lilt of the strings provides contrast in the central (Trio) section, an articulation that forms a delightful counterpoint to the return of the waltz. The sole disturbing element of this whimsical dance is the statement of the motto in the coda by the clarinet and bassoon.

The finale, “Andante maestoso,” begins with a nostalgic transformation of the motto in E Major — a forecast of the apotheosis to come. The Allegro vivace, however, unleashes a sonata form movement of tremendous power and drama that returns us to the minor mode. Timpani and bassoons hammer out a pulsating ostinato that leads to a new melody reminiscent of Robert Schumann’s style. The exposition ends with a reprise of the motto. As one might expect, the coda is devoted almost exclusively to the motto, and it begins with a slower speed (Poco meno mosso), but gets faster as it approaches what seems to be its conclusion. A new tempo, Moderato assai e molto maestoso, brings in the motto accompanied by a triplet figure in the winds. The Presto section reintroduces the Schumannesque theme once again before one final change of tempo, “Molto meno mosso,” presents an apotheosis of — not the motto — but the dance theme of the first movement, now proudly paraded by winds and brass.

David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

  • Rolande Pratten July 14, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    Howdy! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!