Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 4.djvu/639

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
DVOŘÁK.
623
 

association, the London Musical Society, which on March 10, 1883, introduced to the metropolis his setting of the 'Stabat Mater,' composed as early as 1876, though not published till 1881. Public attention was at once aroused by the extraordinary beauty and individuality of the music, and the composer was invited to conduct a performance of the work at the Albert Hall, which took place on March 13. In the autumn of 1884 he was again asked to conduct it at the Worcester Festival, and at the same time received a commission from the authorities to write a short cantata for the next year's Birmingham Festival. This resulted in the composition of 'The Spectre's Bride,' to a Bohemian version by K. J. Erben of the familiar 'Lenore' legend, which, although it was presented in a very inadequate translation of a German version, obtained a success as remarkable as it was well-deserved, carrying off the chief honours of the festival. This, as well as an oratorio on the subject of St. Ludmila, written for the Leeds Festival of 1886, was conducted by the composer himself.

This is not the place for a detailed criticism of Dvořák's works, nor can we attempt to foretell what position his name will ultimately occupy among the composers of our time; it may however be permitted to draw attention to the more striking characteristics of his music. An inexhaustible wealth of melodic invention and a rich variety of colouring are the qualities which most attract us, together with a certain unexpectedness, from which none of his works are wholly free. The imaginative faculty is very strongly developed, so that he is at his best when treating subjects in which the romantic element is prominent. It must be admitted that his works in the regular classical forms are the least favourable specimens of his powers. When we consider the bent of his nature and the circumstances of his early life, this is not to be wondered at; the only wonder is that his concerted compositions should be as numerous and as successful as they are. As a rule, the interest of those movements in which an adherence to strict form is necessary, is kept up, not so much by ingenious developments and new presentments of the themes, as by the copious employment of new episodes, the relationship of which to the principal subjects of the movement is of the slightest. But in spite of these technical departures from time-honoured custom, the most stern purist cannot refuse to yield to the influence of the fresh charm with which the composer invests his ideas, and in most of his slow movements and scherzos there is no room for cavil. These two important sections of the sonata or symphony form have been materially enriched by Dvořák in the introduction and employment of two Bohemian musical forms, that of the 'Dumka' or elegy, and the 'Furiant,' a kind of wild scherzo. Both these forms, altogether new to classical music, have been used by him in chamber music and symphonies, and also separately, as in op. 12, op. 35, and op. 42. To his orchestral works the slight censure passed upon his chamber compositions does not apply. In his symphonies and other works in this class, the continual variety and ingenuity of his instrumentation more than make up for any such deficiencies as we have referred to in the treatment of the themes themselves, while his mastery of effect compels our admiration at every turn. Beside the three symphonies, op. 24, [1]60, and 70, and the overtures which belong to his operas, we may mention a set of 'Symphonic Variations' (op. 40), a 'Scherzo capriccioso' (op. 66), and the overtures 'Mein Heim' (op. 62) and 'Husitska' (op. 67), both written on themes from Bohemian volkslieder.

Although in such works as the concerto op. 33, the pianoforte quartet in D, op. 23, and the three trios, op. 21, 26, and 65, Dvořák has given evidence of a thorough knowledge of pianoforte effect, his works for that instrument alone form the smallest and least important class of his compositions, and it cannot be denied that though the waltzes and mazurkas contain much that is piquant and exceedingly original, his contributions to pianoforte music are by no means representative.

His songs belong for the most part to the earlier period of his career, but considering the extraordinary success attained by the 'Zigeunerlieder' on their publication, it is surprising that the other songs are not more frequently heard. These 'gipsy songs' show the composer at his best, uniting as they do great effectiveness with tender and irresistible pathos. His use of gipsy rhythms and intervals is also most happy.

In his operas, if we may judge from those of which the vocal scores are published, his lighter mood is most prominent. 'Der Bauer ein Schelrn.' ('The Peasant a Rogue') is full of vivacity and charm, and contains many excellent ensembles. Both in this and in 'Die Dickschädel' ('The obstinate daughter,' literally 'The Thickhead') his love for piquant rhythm is constantly perceptible, and both bear a strong affinity in style to the 'Klänge aus Mähren' duets.

None of his earlier works for chorus gave promise of what was to come in the 'Stabat Mater.' The 'Heirs of the White Mountain' is melodious, and contains passages of great vigour, and the 'local colour,' though by no means prominent, is skilfully used; but even those musicians who knew his previous compositions can scarcely have expected his setting of the Latin hymn to be full of the highest qualities which can be brought into requisition. Perhaps the most striking feature of his work is the perfect sympathy of its character with that of the words. The Bohemian composer has not only thrown off all trace of his own nationality, but has adopted a style which makes it difficult to believe him not to have studied the best Italian models for a lifetime before setting pen to paper. We do not mean for a moment to

  1. The Symphony in F, written in 1875, to which the above number should have been affixed, has just been published as op. 76. The first performance took place at the Crystal Palace, April 7, 1888.