Perhaps it takes a deep-rooted understanding of Bohemian culture to understand why Dvořák would choose such grim fairy tales of death and misery as his theme for a form of composition quite new to the otherwise prolific composer. Quite possibly, it is the somber mood emanating from these poems that make them so ideal for musical expression. Whatever the reason, Dvořák waited until the end of his career to explore a musical form that by definition, transforms composer into story teller.
Simon Rattle’s lyrical qualities are ideally suited for leading a performance that paints pictures of innocence, love, greed, corruption, and grief. In this Berlin Philharmonic production, the different sections of the orchestra took advantage of the opportunity to showcase their mastery of musical phrasing essential to program music. Certainly, the long legato lines were executed with careful attention to phrasing, and with an impressive sweetness to the sound. The only quality that could arguably be said to be lacking in this performance is the roughness and/or ugliness of sound during particular moments that depict horror. However, it is just as valid to say that any exaggeration in the performance would detract from the storyline.
The first of these poems, “The Golden Spinning-Wheel,” warns audiences of the terrible consequences brought by deception and greed. In this particular “wicked step-sister” tale, a king falls in love with a beautiful girl whom he intends to marry. Out of greed and jealousy, the girl’s step-sister and step-mother kill the girl and attempt to disguise the step-sister as the girl – the disillusioned king marries the step-sister. Fortunately, the girl is revived by a mysterious man who finds her body. When the deception is revealed to the king, he has the step-sister and her mother thrown to the wolves for their treachery. Dvořák composed music to express this poem phrase by phrase, and Rattle impressively paces the orchestra so that the music comes through like a poetry reading. A notable feature worth mentioning is the solo violin playing the role of the beautiful girl, the king’s love interest. The Concertmaster delivers a stunning performance using an expressive and varied vibrato. The orchestra contrasts this beauty through disturbingly mysterious passages in the cellos and basses.
Continuing with the theme of malice, “The Wood Dove” describes the guilt-ridden conscience of a young woman who murdered her husband so she would be free to marry her true love. Eventually, her guilt denies her any happiness in her new marriage and she is drawn to suicide. Beginning with a funeral march, this poem seems less structured than the first with an almost “stream of consciousness” quality. Rather than remaining completely faithful to the text, it seems Dvořák chose to convey the emotions, guilt, and conflict of the tormented widow. The horns and bassoons, and later the cellos and basses, commendably communicated the underlying “guilt” theme that seemed inescapable.
The “Noonday Witch” retells the story of a frustrated mother who threatens her restless child with the wrath of the Noonday Witch. As the mother verbalizes the threat, the noonday witch appears, delivering a lethal blow to the poor child. Filled with regret, the mother loses consciousness after the ordeal, only to be revived by her husband, who at the realization of the tragedy expresses his own anguish. A dramatic transformation can be heard from the initial themes of a playful child and stern mother, to the ugly and horrid themes of the merciless Witch, to the heart-wrenching grief of the mourning parents depicted by a fortissimo roar from the orchestra.
In “The Water Goblin,” a young girl takes a stroll by a stream against her mother’s advice. As she nears the stream, the Water-Goblin, ruler of an underwater world, abducts the girl and forces her to marry him and together they produce a child. After time passes and the girl shares her longing to be with her mother, the Water-Goblin allows her to visit her home on the surface as long as she promised to return. To insure that she would return, the Water-Goblin insists that the child remain with him. When the girl is reunited with her mother, the mother locks her in the house so that she does not return to the stream. Angry at the girl’s betrayal, the Water-Goblin murders his own child and throws the body to the surface to punish the girl. The motives expressing the Water-Goblins rage are undeniable and forcibly interjected in otherwise serene passages.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic honored Erben and Dvořák by remaining true to the stories so that the poet and composer’s intentions were realized. Having become familiar with the poems prior to listening, it was quite easy to form a mental story board filled with the images described musically by such a commanding orchestra and conductor.
University of Tennessee