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ClassicsOnline Home » DVORAK: Slavonic Rhapsodies Op. 45, Nos. 1 - 3
Antonín Dvorák (1841 - 1904)
Rhapsody Op. 14
Slavonic Rhapsodies Op. 45, Nos. 1, 2 & 3
Antonín Dvorák must be considered the greatest of the Czech
nationalist composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and he certainly
enjoys the widest international popularity. His achievement was to bring together music
that derived its inspiration from Bohemia's woods and fields with the classical traditions
continued by Brahms in Vienna.
Dvorák was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where his
father combined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that his son
would later follow. As a child he played in his father's village band, his early training
was as a violinist in the hands of the village schoolmaster. Schooling in Zlonice, where
he was sent at the age of twelve, lodging with an uncle, allowed instruction in the
rudiments of music from Antonin Liehmann. Two years later he was sent to Kamenice to learn
German, but the following year the needs of his family made it necessary for him to return
to Zlonice, where his parents had now settled, to help in the butcher's shop. Liehmann
continued his lessons and persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague. In 1857 he
entered the Prague Organ School, where he was able to remain for two years.
Dvorák at first earned his living in Prague playing the viola
in a band led by Karel Komsák, which was later to form part of the Provisional Theatre
orchestra, established in 1862. He was to become principal viola-player and to continue as
an orchestral player for the next nine years, for some time under the direction of
Smetana, who exercised considerable influence on Dvoráks parallel work as a
In 1871 Dvorák found himself able to resign from the
Provisional Theatre orchestra and to marry. He took a position as organist at the church
of St. Adalbert, taught a few pupils and otherwise devoted himself to composition. It was
through the encouragement of Brahms, four years later, that his music was brought
gradually to the attention of a much wider public. In particular Brahms was able to
persuade Simrock to publish Dvorák's Moravian Duets.
Their success was followed by the publisher's request for a further set, the first series
of Slavonic Dances, Opus 46, also composed
for piano duet, but orchestrated at the same time by the composer. The same year, 1878,
saw the composition of the three Slavonic Rhapsodies,
From this time onwards Dvorák's fame was to grow and he was to
win particular popularity in Germany and in England, visiting the latter country on
several occasions and fulfilling commissions for choral works for Birmingham and Leeds. In
1891 he was appointed professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and the following
year accepted an invitation to go to New York as director of the new National
Conservatory. The period in America gave rise to one of his best known works, the Symphony
"From the New World". By 1895 he was back again in Prague, teaching at the
Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. He died two years later.
This brief account of Dvorák's life ignores the considerable
amount of music he wrote, compositions of much more diversity than is always apparent from
modern concert programmes, which confine their attention to the unmistakably popular.
Nevertheless even the most frequently played of his works are not staled by custom. The Slavonic Dances, for example, retain all their
freshness and life, qualities shared by the more extended Slavonic Rhapsodies.
The Rhapsody in A Minor,
variously numbered Opus 14, 15, 18 or 19, was conceived as a symphonic poem, a title it
sometimes bears, on the model of Smetana's Vysehrad,
with a nod towards the form of the symphonic poem developed by Liszt. The work was
completed in the autumn of 1874 and published posthumously in 1912. In order of
composition it follows the fourth of Dvorák's nine symphonies and the first half dozen of
his fourteen string quartets, and is by no means the work of a novice. The Rhapsody, overtly nationalist in melodic content,
shows a firm handling of the orchestra in a form that is occasionally inclined to the
The Slavonic Rhapsodies
have a less immediate appeal. The first of them, in D Major, has been unkindly compared to
an operatic selection, a comment on its structure and content. After a gentle, pastoral
opening, the music moves on to a march that turns into a peasant dance and then to
something more meditative, as the mood changes. After a passage of considerable activity,
the Rhapsody ends as peacefully as it had
Dvorák dedicated his three Slavonic
Rhapsodies of 1878 to a critic, a rare expression of gratitude by a composer to
a maligned profession, after an enthusiastic review of his first set of Slavonic Dances. Described as more Slav than
rhapsody, the second of the set, in G minor, may lack the appeal of the more popular
third, but offers music of characteristically vital energy, relaxing into an easy-going
waltz, where a more academic composer might have preferred to develop the material.
The Third Slavonic Rhapsody,
in A Flat Major, opens with a passage for the harp, the prelude to some bardic song,
followed by the woodwind, deployed with Dvorák's usual skill. After this the violins
enter with a flourish and the drama intensifies, before the appearance of a winning
dance-tune. There is an interlude during which solo violin and solo flute lead back to the
dance once more and further moments of brief repose, before the music whirls on to an
ending that brings its own surprise.
The Czech conductor Zdenék Koler studied under Karel
Ancerl at the Prague Academy of Arts, and distinguished himself early in his career at the
Besançon Conductors' Competition and in the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition in New York.
The first prize in the second of these enabled him to work as assistant-conductor with
Leonard Bernstein for one year.
In Czecho-Slovakia Koler began as conductor of the Prague
opera ensemble, before becoming chief conductor and music director of the opera in Olomouc
and Ostrava. He spent a short time as permanent conductor of the Prague Symphony
Orchestra, before moving to Berlin, where he was appointed Music Director of the Komische
Oper in 1965. In 1971 he became chief conductor of the Slovak National Theatre Opera,
undertaking engagements at the same time with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, and
conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague, in addition to guest appearances
with major orchestras abroad, in Europe, Canada and the Far East.
As permanent conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Zdenék
Koler has travelled widely. From 1980 until 1985 he was chief conductor and artistic
director of the Prague National Theatre Opera to which he will return as chief conductor
in 1990. He has received the highest national honour, the title National Artist, from the
Czecho-Slovakian government, while winning awards abroad for his recordings.
Libor Peek was born in 1933 and studied conducting at the
Prague Academy of Musical Arts, later appearing at home and abroad with his own ensembles.
For nine years he directed orchestras at Leeuwarden and Enschede in Holland and was for
many years principal conductor of the Pardubice State Orchestra. After achieving
considerable success as music director of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra in Bratislava,
in 1982 he moved to Prague to become conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. In
1988 he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra The Slovak Philharmonic
Orchestra has benefited considerably from the work of its distinguished conductors. These
include Vaclav Talich (1949 - 1952), Ludovit Rajter, Ladislav Slovak and Libor Peek.
Zdenek Koler has also had a long and distinguished association with the orchestra
and has conducted many of its most successful recordings, among them the complete
symphonies of Dvorak.
During the years of its professional existence the Slovak
Philharmonic has worked under the direction of many of the most distinguished conductors
from abroad, from Eugene Goossens and Malcolm Sargent to Claudio Abbado, Antal Dorati and
Riccardo Muti. The orchestra has undertaken many tours abroad, including visits to Germany
and Japan, and has made a large number of recordings for the Czech Opus label, for
Supraphon, for Hungaroton and, in recent years, for the Marco Polo and Naxos labels. These
recordings include works by Gliere, Spohr, Respighi, Rubinstein, Bax, Suchon and
Miaskovsky and have brought the orchestra a growing international reputation and praise
from the critics of leading international publications.
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DVORAK: Slavonic Rhapsodies Op. 45, Nos. 1 - 3