Antonín Dvořák and the Songs of His Time

Liszt and Schumann were in many ways musical and spiritual opposites.

But one thing they did share was a passion for Schubert’s songs, many of which were published in the decade following his death in 1828.
Perhaps the luckiest accident in Schubert’s life was his acquaintance and friendship with the famous tenor Vogl. This was brought about deliberately by his friends, in order to secure for his songs the advantage of that singer's artistic interpretations. Vogl at first pretended to be "tired of music," and showed some indifference to his modest young accompanist's songs; but this was soon changed to interest, followed by genuine enthusiasm. Thus it came about that these songs were gradually made familiar in Viennese social circles. Schubert himself sang, though only with a "composer's voice"; but he must have been an admirable accompanist. In a letter to his parents he says: "I am assured by some that under my fingers the keys are changed to singing voices, which, if true, would please me greatly." This, written only three years before his death, illustrates his great modesty. In some recently published reminiscences by Josef von Spaun, it is related how, when Vogl and Schubert performed together at soirees in Vienna, the ladies would crowd about the tenor, lionizing him and entirely ignoring the composer. But Schubert, instead of feeling annoyed or jealous, was actually pleased. Adoration embarrassed him, and he is known to have dodged it once by escaping secretly by the back door.

Liszt’s initial creative response was, typically, to make keyboard transcriptions of dozens of the songs for his own performance. Schumann, who had avidly studied Schubert’s songs in the years 1838-9, threw himself with characteristic euphoria into song composition early in 1840.
In less than three years, on January 31st, 1897, a century will have elapsed since Franz Schubert was born, and sixty-nine years since he died. He lived only thirty-two years, yet in this short time-or, more accurately in eighteen years - he wrote more than eleven hundred compositions. This fact, in itself sufficiently astounding becomes more so when we consider the conditions of his life as described by his biographers - his poverty and privations, from his early years, when we find him suffering from hunger and cold, and unable to buy music-paper to write down his inspirations, to his last year, when typhoid fever ended his career and left his heirs about ten dollars, not enought to pay for his funeral expenses - and no wonder, since, even in his last years, twenty cents was considered pay enough for some of those songs on which many publishers have since grown rich.

When he met Liszt in Dresden he was in full spate; and his enthusiasm could well have prompted Liszt’s first German-language song, “Im Rhein,” later that year—months after Schumann had set the same Heine text in his Dichterliebe.
Of Schubert’s symphonies, too, I am such an enthusiastic admirer that I do not hesitate to place him next to Beethoven, far above Mendelssohn, as well as above Schumann. Mendelssohn had some of Mozart’s natural instinct for orchestration and gift for form, but much of his work has proved ephemeral. Schumann is at his best in his songs, his chamber music and his pianoforte pieces. His symphonies, too, are great works, yet they are not always truly orchestral; the form seems to hamper the composer, and the instrumentation is not always satisfactory. This is never the case with Schubert. Although he sometimes wrote carelessly, and often diffusely, he is never at fault in his means of expression, while mastery of form came to him spontaneously. In originality of harmony and modulation, and in his gift of orchestral colouring, Schubert has had no superior. Dr. Riemann asserts with justice that, in their use of harmony, both Schumann and Liszt are descendants of Schubert; Brahms, too, whose enthusiasm for Schubert is well known, has perhaps felt his influence; and as for myself, I cordially acknowledge my great obligations to him.

In Liszt’s earliest songs, composed before he moved to the Weimar court in 1848, the showman can overwhelm the poet; and more than one number threatens to turn into a keyboard etude with vocal obbligato.

Antonin Dvorak was born on September eighth eighteen hundred forty-one in a small bohemian village named Nelahozeves nad Vitavou. Dvorak lived most of his life in Prague but in eighteen hundred ninety-two he moved to New York. He composed mostly Czech folk music however he also wrote symphonies, operas, songs, various chamber music and spiritual music such as oratories and cantatas.

But Liszt was an acute self-critic and, like the teenaged Schubert before him, an inveterate reworker and reviser of his songs. In a letter written in the early 1850s he described his early songs as “mostly inflatedly sentimental, and often overladen in the accompaniment”.
Little did the Viennese dream that the songs thus interpreted for them by Schubert and Vogl would create a new era in music. In the Lied or lyric song, not only is Schubert the first in point of time, but no one has ever surpassed him. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven did indeed write a few songs, but merely by the way, and without revealing much of their genius or individuality in them. But Schubert created a new epoch with the Lied, as Bach did with the piano, and Haydn with the orchestra. All other song writers have followed in his footsteps, all are his pupils, and it is to his rich treasure of songs that we owe, as a heritage, the beautiful songs of such masters as Schumann, Franz, and Brahms. To my taste the best songs written since Schubert are the Magelonen-Lieder of Brahms; but I agree with the remark once made to me by the critic Ehlert that Franz attained the highest perfection of all in making poetry and music equivalent in his songs.

And almost invariably, revision meant concentration and simplification. While in Liszt’s first, 1840, setting of “Im Rhein” the piano part is indeed “overladen,” his revision of 15 years later, sung tonight by Thomas Hampson, is far more restrained.
In Schubert’s pianoforte music, perhaps even more than in his other compositions, we find a Slavic trait which he was the first to introduce prominently into art-music, namely the quaint alternation of major and minor within the same period. Nor is this the only Slavic or Hungarian trait to be found in his music. During his residence in Hungary, he assimilated national melodies and rhythmic peculiarities, and embodied them in his art, thus becoming the forerunner of Liszt, Brahms and others who have made Hungarian melodies an integral part of European concert music. From the rich stores of Slavic folk music, in its Hungarian, Russian, Bohemian and Polish varieties, the composers of today have derived, and will continue to derive, much that is charming and novel in their music. Nor is there anything objectionable in this, for if the poet and the painter base much of their best art on national legends, songs and traditions, why should not the musician? And to Schubert will belong the honor of having been one of the first to show the way.

Where Schumann immediately seizes on the image of the reflected cathedral, Liszt’s opening paints the rippling waters, à la Wagner. His more pictorial setting contains one of Liszt’s ravishing enharmonic modulations to suggest the picture’s radiance (“hat’s freundlich hineingestrahlt”), and a delicate evocation of fluttering angels’ wings at “Es schweben Blumen und Englein”.
It was with great pleasure and feelings of gratitude that I read not long ago of the performance in Berlin of the B [flat] major Symphony by Herr Weingartner, one of the few conductors who have had the courage to put this youthful work on their programs. Schubert's fourth, too, is an admirable composition. It bears the title of "Tragic Symphony," and was written at the age of nineteen, about a year after the "Erl King." It makes one marvel that one so young should have had the power to give utterance to such deep pathos. In the adagio there are chords that strikingly suggest the anguish of Tristan's utterances; nor is this the only place wherein Schubert is prophetic of Wagnerian harmonies. And although partly anticipated by Gluck and Mozart, he was one of the first to make use of an effect to which Wagner and other modern composers owe many of their most beautiful orchestral colors--the employment of the brass, not for noise, but played softly, to secure rich and warm tints.

Unlikely as it might seem, Liszt could on occasion rival Schumann in economy and power of suggestion. And each of the next three numbers—two to poems by Heine, “Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen” (1856), and “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder” (1844, revised 1860) one a setting of Rellstab (“Ihr Auge,” 1843)—is a pungent miniature, more declamatory in style than Schumann, especially in the two Heine songs, and more daringly chromatic.

As his fame spread throughout Europe, it spread to the United States as well. He was invited in 1892 to the National Conservatory in New York City where he became the artistic director. At the time, he was earning a little less than $500 a month as a professor at the Prague Conservatory. When he took the job at the National Conservatory, he made a salary of $15,000 a year. He served at the Conservatory for three years and wrote some of his best-known music during his time, which includes his Symphony #9 in E minor.

In all three, the acerbic dissonances and typically Lisztian harmonic shocks are a vivid musical embodiment of the poets’ bitterness and melodramatic Weltschmerz.

Another Rellstab setting, “Es rauschen die Winde” (previously set by Schubert as Herbst), exists, like so many of Liszt’s songs, in two separate versions, one from the 1840s, the other sung here, from around 1856.

Although these two symphonies are by far the best of Schubert’s, it is a pity that they alone should be deemed worthy [of] a place in our concert programmes. I played the sixth in C major and No. 5 in B [flat] major a dozen times with my orchestral pupils at the National Conservatory last winter; they shared my pleasure in them, and recognized at once their great beauty.

The chill blast of autumn is evoked in agitated, low-lying chromatic figuration, the memory of spring in snatches of bel canto lyricism against softly strummed harp chords. Finally in this group, Liszt in piquant Hungarian Gypsy vein: “Die drei Zigeuner” (1860), an episodic ballad in which the singer’s recitative-like declamation is linked by picturesque piano interludes depicting in turn the fiddler, the indolent smoker and the sleeper, with a wonderfully poetic evocation of the wind brushing the cimbalom strings.
This is why one of the most striking aspects of the music of Antonin Dvorak to a modern listener is its tunefulness and clear melodic line. The Czech Dvorak styled himself as a musician in the Romantic, nationalist tradition of 19th century artists who embraced the 'folk' culture as purer in its pastoral simplicity than life in an urban environment. His music is both nostalgic and backward-looking, even while he also embraces the forward-looking nationalistic movements of his era, which strove to create independent national governments for ethnic identities within Europe's empire.

Dvořák Discovered

In 1878, at the age of 37, Dvořák finally broke through from local to international fame with his first set of Slavonic Dances. The success of these colorful, flamboyant pieces created an eager market for his music in Austria, Germany and England; and the Slavonic Dances were followed quickly by, among others, the three Slavonic Rhapsodies and the Czech Suite.

This section discusses books and encyclopedia articles providing overall coverage of Dvořák’s life and works. Various circumstances have prevented Dvořák from receiving the thorough and objective treatment accorded to many other composers of his stature, but this situation has begun to change in recent publications. In overall scope and depth nothing begins to approach the four volumes of Šourek 1954-1957, which are available in Czech only and reflect the place and time of their origin in other ways as well.

Then, early in 1880, he wrote the seven Gypsy Melodies to poems by Adolf Heyduk (1835 -1923) for Gustav Walter, a leading tenor at the Vienna Court Opera who had long admired Dvořák’s songs. In deference to the singer, and to the commercial sense of his Berlin publisher Simrock, he set the poems not in the original Czech but in German, using a translation prepared by the poet himself.
In the 19th century this began to change. The music of concert halls became artistic, or what we came to call classical music. (Although the Classical period refers to a specific time in musical history, 'classical' has become a common term to characterize Romantic, Modern, and other varieties of serious orchestral music). The 19th century division manifested itself between the type of music heard in the streets, folk tunes, and music played in drawing rooms, versus music authored by composers for public display. However, not all musicians embraced this distinction. For example, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak used the musical traditions of his Slavic people, and other native peoples, including American Indians and African-Americans, to create serious art. Dvorak's music manifests the resistance to the divide between popular and classical music today.

The songs were an immediate success; and at Dvořák’s request Simrock soon brought out an edition with a Czech text, underlaid with the quaint, stilted English translation still sometimes used today.

The Gypsy was a familiar romantic symbol of emancipation from bourgeois constraints.

The merging of artistic and popular music: The Romantic, nationalist strains of Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No.5 in F Major, Op.76.

And in these songs Heyduk and Dvořák evoked not only the unfettered gypsy life but also, by implication, the Czech people’s bid for independence from Habsburg rule. In several numbers the accompaniments suggest the cimbalom of the Hungarian Gypsy bands Dvořák will often have heard in Prague.
The 19th century manifested the beginnings of the current seismic divide between classical (or 'serious') art music and popular music. Pairing the image of a heavy metal head-banger against a Mozart-listening nerd is a common trope in American popular advertising and films. But in the "music world of the 18th century, when composers we now call classical were active -- Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart… the concept of classical music didn't exist. Music wasn't considered a deeply serious art, and musical performances were mostly entertainment. Almost all the pieces played were new. People talked while the music played, and reacted loudly, clapping and cheering when they heard something they liked" (Sandow 2006). There was no hushed, reverential, and uncomfortable silence, as is characteristic of concert halls today, versus the raucous atmosphere of rock concerts.

But the rhythms and melodies owe more to Bohemian and Moravian folk music than to the Gypsy style.

The first song, with its use of an “exotic” Gypsy scale and its tender, Schubertian shift from minor to major for the middle verse, is typical of the set in its mingled joy and soulful yearning.

Dvorak was formally trained in music at the Organ College in Prague and found a job as an organist in a small church. After Dvorak had earned enough money from the organist job he started teaching so that he could concentrate more on composing. He received a formal invitation to America along with a contract offer from the National Conservatory of Music in New York. The proposal offered Dvorak a two-year term as the director of the school and conducting eight concerts a year. The salary was fifteen thousand a year. His most famous symphony was the E Minor Symphony known as the New World Symphony. In 1894, Dvorak returned home for the last ten years of his life where he continued to compose. The Czechs honored him as their elder statesman of culture and the Austrian government made him a senator. At the end of Dvorak’s life, although he had done financially well during his life, he was in serious financial straits due to the fact that he had sold many compositions for little to nothing to live on. Dvorak’s life came to an end in Prague on May first nineteen hundred four.

Next comes an irrepressible Czech folk dance, with the piano gleefully evoking the bright tinkle of the triangle before introducing a new pensive note in the postlude. After the shadowy, rather Brahmsian third song, comes Dvořák’s most celebrated song, crooned in Victorian and Edwardian drawing rooms as “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” But its haunting, nostalgic tune and subtle pull between the melody (in 2/4 rhythm) and the syncopated 6/8 accompaniment have enabled it to weather any number of sentimental performances and dubious arrangements. Nostalgia is banished in the next two songs, which celebrate the carefree Gypsy life in bold, leaping— and unmistakably Czech—dance rhythms.
I have just observed that mastery of form came to Schubert spontaneously. This is illustrated by his early symphonies, five of which he wrote before he was twenty, at which, the more I study them, the more I marvel. Although the influence of Haydn and Mozart is apparent in them, Schubert's musical individuality is unmistakable in the character of the melody, in the harmonic progressions, and in many exquisite bits of orchestration. In his later symphonies he becomes more and more individual and original. The influence of Haydn and Mozart, so obvious in his earlier efforts, is gradually eliminated, and with his contemporary, Beethoven, he had less in common from the beginning. He resembles Beethoven, however, in the vigour and melodious flow of his basses; such basses we find already in his early symphonies. His Unfinished Symphony and the great one in C are unique contributions to musical literature, absolutely new and original, Schubert in every bar. What is perhaps most characteristic about them is the song-like melody pervading them. He introduced the song into the symphony, and made the transfer so skillfully that Schumann was led to speak of the resemblance to the human voice (Aehnlichkeit mit dem Stimmorgan) in these orchestral parts.

In the last song exultation in the Gypsy’s al fresco freedom is tinged with passionate longing. Dvořák artfully varies the accompaniment for each successive verse, and creates a fervent, abandoned climax as the Gypsy proclaims his credo, “to be free forever”.
The richness and variety of colouring in the great Symphony in C are astounding. It is a work which always fascinates, always remains new. It has the effect of gathering clouds, with constant glimpses of sunshine breaking through them. It illustrates also, like most of Schubert’s compositions, the truth of an assertion once made to me by Dr. Hans Richter - that the greatest masters always reveal their genius most unmistakably and most delightfully in their slow movements. Personally I prefer the Unfinished Symphony even to the one in C; apart from its intrinsic beauty, it avoids the fault of diffuseness. If Schubert’s symphonies have a serious fault it is prolixity; he does not know when to stop; yet, if the repeats are omitted, a course of which I thoroughly approve, and which, indeed, is now generally adopted, they are not too long.

Mahler’s “Frühlingsreise”

It was Mahler’s anguished relationship with the singer Johanna Richter that inspired his first masterpiece, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”).

Antonin Dvorak was born in Nelahozeves on September 8, 1841. Dvorak was one of the greatest of the Czech composers. He grew up with an appreciation of local folk songs and demonstrated a talent for music at an early age. His first experience with music was of a violinist and violist. He got the attention of Johannes Brahms with his Moravian Duets and soon won a competition in Vienna that he would have never won if it had not been for the insistence of Brahms. Since his patriotic composition, Hymnus, was so popular in 1873, he decided to dedicate himself to composing and teaching music.

In June 1883 the composer had landed his first major appointment, as music director at the opera house in Kassel. His affair with Johanna began shortly afterwards and dragged on until the end of 1884. In its original, voice-and-piano version, the Gesellen cycle was probably begun in December 1883, and certainly completed in essentials by 1 January 1885, just after the relationship had ended. Mahler made a preliminary orchestral version of the cycle around 1891-3 and revised the scoring for a Berlin concert in March 1896 that also included the First Symphony, whose first movement and Funeral March use material from the second and fourth Gesellen songs.
When in New York City at the Conservatory of Music, Dvorak taught composition three mornings a week and conducted choir and orchestra another three mornings. He encouraged his students to develop their own “American style”. He also encouraged them to develop the folk songs and “plantation music” of the South.

The texts of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were written by Mahler himself under the influence of the Knaben Wunderhorn collection, with the opening poem a virtual paraphrase of a Wunderhorn text. The cycle has been called Mahler’s “Frühlingsreise,” a counterpart to Winterreise.

Of course, Dvorak is usually called a classical musician in today's vocabulary. But in his own era: "Dvorak was very purely and simply a man of the people, and a people's musician. The soil from which he sprang as an artist was that of the folksong and folk-dances of that robust and unadulterated kind still found in Bohemian villages -- and his home had been a village inn, we must remember. He was early imbued with a traditional spirit of musical handiwork by his first teachers, who combined the functions of choirmaster and of conductor of the local orchestra. The expansive and idyllic Bohemian landscape, the patriarchally simple and dignified life of the Czech people, the winged rhythms, gushing melodiousness and sensuous, effusive sound of Bohemian music: these were the things that formed Dvorak's artistic soul" (Hollander 313).

And as in Schubert’s cycle, a jilted lover sets out on his aimless wandering, haunted by memories of the affair and the sweetheart’s blue eyes.

Mahler emphasizes the notion of the Gesellen songs as a continuous journey by making each song end in a different key from the one in which it began. The first song contrasts the lover’s own grief on his sweetheart’s wedding day with his delight in the natural world, evoked with a turn to a remote key and a lulling 6/8 motion. In the second song there is an aching tension between the vernal “walking” tune and the merry birdsong on the one hand, and, on the other, the lover’s underlying sadness which gradually infuses the walking tune.

If the first two songs are essentially diatonic and folk-inspired, the third foreshadows the expressionist violence and mordant irony of later Mahler. The final song opens as a desolate funeral march, a genre Mahler was to make his own. But the song warms into the major key as the protagonist—unlike Schubert’s— finds everlasting rest beneath the linden tree. Then, with a last gentle twist of the knife, major sours to minor in the piano postlude.

Unlike most of the contemporaries, Dvorak was not a pianist/composer. His compositions for the piano are rare. His piano compositions have a quality that makes them both beautiful and powerful. Someone said that they are much like a jewel: they are revered by those who appreciate the beauty of their shape, the smoothly polished surface, and the glow that comes from within.

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Richard Strauss: A Lifetime of Lieder

Strauss’s wife Pauline was a notorious shrew, as may be gauged from the composer’s graphic portrait of her in Intermezzo. But she was also a gifted singer, who created the leading role in Strauss’s first opera, Guntram, and inspired his lifelong love affair with the soprano voice. From the late 1880s until Pauline’s retirement in 1906 the Strausses made regular recital tours in Europe and the United States; and Richard composed many of the songs from his Op. 27 to Op. 56 expressly for his wife. She remained his ideal interpreter, even when her voice grew more fragile and her platform manner—including applause-seeking antics during the piano postludes—increasingly outrageous.

Strauss followed the example of Schumann in Myrthen by presenting his four Op. 27 songs as a gift to his bride on their wedding day, September 10, 1894. Thomas Hampson has chosen two numbers from this favorite set to frame his Strauss group. The surging, ecstatic “Heimliche Aufforderung” is an inspired fusion of two normally distinct genres, the drinking song and the love song. “Morgen” unfolds as a rapt duet for piano and voice, with the singer stealing in shyly after the long prelude and magically counterpointing his own independent line with the keyboard’s musing cantilena.

“Freundliche Vision” (1900) distills a similar, quintessentially Straussian mood of timeless enchantment. In the song’s original version for soprano, the vision is evoked in C-sharp major, with (as in “Morgen”) voice and piano counterpointing and entwining their own distinct melodies; then, as dream blurs into reality, the music melts poetically to the distant key of D major.

“Die Nacht,” from the Op. 10 set (1885) that marked Strauss’s coming-of-age as a song composer, is a tender, secretive nocturne evoking the lover’s anxiety that the night which steals color and shape will also steal his beloved. Strauss mirrors the lover’s explicit fear in the last verse with shadowy, fluid tonality, culminating in a “shock” plunge to a remote key on the final “auch”.

Another nocturne, “Sehnsucht”(1896), is a song of almost symphonic scope, growing from the stark, somber opening, set as quasi-recitative, through the brightening of texture and tonality at the mention of the beloved, to the rapturous final “Ich liebe dich.” “Mein Herz ist stumm” (1888) sets verses of clichéd sentimentality by one of the young Strauss’s favorite poets, Count Adolf Friedrich von Schack. As so often, though, the music transcends the poem, beginning in frozen desolation, thawing and flowering in the central verses, with their forest murmurs and horn calls, and finally returning to the mood of the opening as the singer-poet contemplates a cheerless old age.

Dvořák: From National to International

Antonín Dvořák was that rare phenomenon among Romantic composers, a happily (and monogamously) married man. But like Mozart nearly a century earlier, he first fell in love with the sister. In his twenties he eked out his modest salary as a viola player in the Czech Provisional Theater Orchestra in Prague by giving piano lessons. Two of his pupils were the sisters Josefina and Anna Čermáková, the daughters of a goldsmith. He was to marry Anna in 1873. But a decade earlier he had fallen passionately in love with the 16-year-old Josefina, then just beginning a career as an actress. She did not return Dvořák’s feelings, and like others of her ilk later married into the aristocracy. Under the immediate influence of his unrequited passion he composed his earliest solo songs, a cycle of 18 love songs entitled Cypřiše (“Cypresses”), to texts by the Czech poet Gustav Pfleger-Moravský.

Sixteen years later, in 1881, the now internationally famous composer revised four of the “Cypresses,” which were published the following year as Four Songs, Op. 2. For all their occasional indebtedness to Schumann, all four show Dvořák’s melodic gift at its freshest and most candid. Except in the beautiful No. 3, with its poignant vocal line over folkstyle drones, the melodies remained substantially unaltered in the revision. But Dvořák, by now a master craftsman, refined and clarified the accompaniments, above all in the atmospheric forest murmurs of the fourth song, “Silence on the Mountains”.

In 1876, at a time of rapidly growing professional success, Dvořák composed 12 settings of Vítězslav Hálek’s Večerni písně(“Evening Songs”), later issued in three groups. Of the four Op. 3 songs, published in 1881, two are clearly indebted to earlier composers: No. 1, “The Tiny Stars Up High, “conjures a mood of nocturnal reverie courtesy of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, while No. 4, “Man Was Created,” draws on Mozart’s passionate Fantasia for Piano, K. 475.

Of the four songs from Op. 82, originally composed to German texts in the winter of 1887-8, Nos. 2-4 are among Dvořák’s most charming and delicate. The dancing, rippling brook of No. 4 inevitably evokes Dvořák’s beloved Schubert. But the most searching of the four songs is the first, “Leave Me Alone,” which was specially cherished by Josefina, once object of the composer’s unreciprocated love, now his sister-in-law. In November of 1894 Josefina wrote to Dvořák in America telling him she was mortally ill (she was to die in May 1895); and in homage to her he introduced two particularly tender phrases into the Adagio and finale of his B-minor Cello Concerto.

The Americans: MacDowell and Farwell

In the last quarter of the 19th century a European, preferably German, musical training was deemed essential for any aspiring American composer. And in their teens both Edward MacDowell and Arthur Farwell duly made the Atlantic crossing to give their technique the requisite cosmopolitan gloss. MacDowell, born in 1860, the same year as Mahler and Wolf, traveled first to Paris and then to Frankfurt, where he studied with Joachim Raff and was encouraged by Liszt both as a pianist and as a composer. For a time he considered settling permanently in Germany. But he returned to the U.S. in 1888, where he was hailed as “the greatest musical genius America has produced.” After a frustrating period as the first professor of music at Columbia University he suffered a mental breakdown in 1904. And the last four years of his short life were spent in a state of childlike insanity.

Despite his status as a national composer, MacDowell had little feeling for native American music, remaining true to the European Romantic tradition he had absorbed in his youth. Not surprisingly, Schumann is the dominant influence behind the dozen or so Lieder he composed in Germany in his early 20s, to poems by Heine, Goethe, Geibel and others. Here and there chromatic “purple patches” suggest the more feverish idiom of Liszt and Wagner, while the vein of wistful delicacy MacDowell cultivated with such charm shows an obvious debt to Mendelssohn.

Seventeen years younger than MacDowell, Arthur Farwell studied as a young man in Germany with Engelbert Humperdinck and Hans Pfitzner. But on his return to the United States he took a passionate stand against what he viewed as Germanic musical imperialism, collecting and arranging tunes by American Indians and Spanish-American communities, and, in 1907, founding the National Wa-Wan Society of America “for the advancement of the work of American composers, and the interests of the musical life of the American people”. His own songs, which range from settings of Shelley and Blake to 39 songs to poems by Emily Dickinson, are eclectic in idiom, drawing variously on French impressionism, the Russians, especially Mussorgsky (another fierce anti-German), and indigenous American melodies and rhythms.

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Grieg: Germanic Overtones, Norwegian Sentiments

“It was amusing to make contact with Dvořák,” wrote Edvard Grieg from Prague in March 1903. “He is a character, to put it mildly; but he was very likeable.” Though they were not to meet again, the two men were warm admirers of each other’s music. And while Dvořák was far more indebted than Grieg to the central European Romantic tradition, both men were fervent nationalists in an age of growing resistance to Austro-German musical hegemony.

In my opinion Dvorak had a typical life for a musical or artist in that time period. His work has a variety sounds and that is one thing that I really enjoyed about him. He seemed to be a very well rounded person and had a lot of wonderful experiences in his life. I would of enjoyed hearing his music and symphonies live. One thing that annoys me is that fact that it doesn’t seem like he received the recognition that I feel he deserved during his lifetime. It is ashamed that this is how it is for artist. We don’t seem to appreciate them till they are gone.

In the Op. 48 songs, though, Grieg temporarily abandons his native Norwegian for the German language he had often set as a student in Leipzig. While most of his songs were composed for his wife Nina, the six in the Op. 48 set were written between 1884 and 1889 for the Swedish-born Wagnerian soprano Ellen Gulbranson, who had helped to popularize his Norwegian songs internationally. There are half-echoes of Schumann, the German Romantic with whom Grieg was most in sympathy, in the chromaticism and yearning falling sevenths of the Goethe setting” Zur Rosenzeit.” And the delightful “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall,” with its warbling “Tandaradei” refrain (prefigured in the brief piano introduction), has a whiff of a Brahmsian folksong. But for all their occasional Germanic overtones, these songs are utterly characteristic of Grieg in their melodic and harmonic pungency. The most famous of them, “Ein Traum,” contrasts ecstatic lyricism and a climax of almost Wagnerian opulence (a tribute to Ellen Gulbranson’s powerful voice) with piquant little piano flourishes redolent of Norwegian folk music.

Dvořák’s Love Songs

In December 1888 Dvořák rewrote another clutch of songs from his lovelorn “Cypresses” cycle, sending them to the Berlin publisher Simrock early the following year with the note: “These are eight Love Songs [“Písně milostné”] their texts are above all lyrical—think of a boy in love.” Sometimes the rewriting was merely a question of refining details, especially in the accompaniment. In the last song, for instance, the plain chords of the original became a gossamer shimmer of arpeggios. Elsewhere the alterations were more radical. Dvořák completely rewrote much of the first song, and transformed the rhythm of the fifth—though here, as at times elsewhere, the poem’s bleakness is softened by the music. No. 3, “I Wander Oft Past Yonder House,” formerly a slow waltz, now becomes a wistful polka. The climax of the most dramatic and impassioned song, No. 6, was intensified and recast to coincide with the climax of the poem (originally it had come too soon). Dvořák also made crucial improvements to No. 7, “When Thy Sweet Glances on Me Fall” (the only one of the set in which love is blighted or irretrievably lost), changing the key from G major to G minor, and deepening the music’s tender yearning.

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Brahms: Final Thoughts on Love and Death

Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”), Op. 121, his last thoughts on death and the redeeming power of love, date from the spring of 1896, when his beloved Clara Schumann lay mortally ill and he himself was suffering from the first symptoms of the liver cancer that was to kill him a year later. These awesome songs move from the terrible nihilism of Ecclesiastes (Brahms’s biographer Max Kalbeck remarked how the agnostic composer “always enjoyed seeking out the godless texts in the Bible”) to St. Paul’s sermon on love in his first Epistle to the Corinthians.

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In the process the implacable minor mode of the first song, with its grimly tolling funeral bell and its swirling dusts, yields via the compassionate major-keyed closing sections of the second and third songs to the unalloyed major of the final apostrophe on love—which for Brahms meant eros (in the sketches for this song Kalbeck found allusions to the composer’s early love for his student Elisabet(h) von Stockhausen) as well as St. Paul’s agape.

Mahler, in the Folk Vein

Ever the autocratic perfectionist, Mahler spent stormy periods as musical director of the Budapest Opera (1888-91) and, from 1891 to 1897, the Hamburg Opera. He found respite in his long summer vacations on the Attersee in the Salzkammergut. And here he composed many of the songs that make up the Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”) settings, which drew on a collection of folksongs and folk poems published between 1806 and 1808 by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. These examples of popular, “natural” art were nostalgically cherished by the early Romantics as an antidote to a world of encroaching urbanization and industrialization. As Mahler’s early biographer Richard Specht put it: “In earlier centuries such songs may have been sung in small market towns among soldiers, shepherds and peasants.”

Mahler had known and loved the Knaben Wunderhorn anthology since his childhood in the German-speaking Moravian town of Iglau. In his settings he treats folksong, military band music, Ländler and Viennese waltzes with mingled affection, irony and tragic realism. “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (1898) is an eerie encounter between a girl and the ghost of her soldier sweetheart, poignantly juxtaposing a funeral march and a slow, swaying Ländler of lulling tenderness. In complete contrast, “Urlicht” (1892), which Mahler later incorporated in his Resurrection Symphony, No. 2, hymns a serene faith in the eternal life in music of lambent, transfigured stillness.

Dvořák: An Affirmation of Faith

In March 1894, towards the end of his first visit to the United States, Dvořák composed what were virtually his last songs, the set of ten Biblical Songs, Op. 99. A devout, unquestioning Catholic, like Haydn a century earlier, Dvořák evidently felt an urgent need to affirm his faith at a time when his 79-yearold father lay mortally ill in distant Bohemia. For the texts he drew on the traditional Czech Protestant translation of the Book of Psalms in the Kraliče Bible of 1613.

Several of the Biblical songs, including Nos. 2, 4 and the jolly No. 5, are in Dvořák’s most direct and naive vein, combining comfortable, “churchy” harmonies, a Czech folk flavor and (especially in No 2) echoes of the African-American spiritual. The American connection is even stronger in the catchy dance rhythms and pentatonic harmonies of the exultant final song, “O sing unto the Lord”. Elsewhere the musical idiom is more complex and astringent. The first song, “Clouds and Darkness are Round About Him,” matches the psalmist’s apocalyptic vision with dissonant harmonies (the home key is blurred until the cathartic final climax) and a forceful, declamatory vocal line. The de profundis cry of “Hear My Prayer,” No. 3, is set with extreme, unsettling freedom of modulation. Most memorable of all, though, is No. 7, “By the Waters of Babylon,” which begins as a grave folk dance (shades here of some of the more melancholy of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances) in the minor key, and then turns radiantly to the major after the poignant climactic cry “O Jerusalem”.

-Richard Wigmore

The author, formerly a professional singer, is a writer specializing in the Viennese Classical period and in Lieder. He writes reviews for the Daily Telegraph, Gramophone, and BBC Music Magazine; broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and World Service; and gives classes in Lied interpretation at the Guildhall School of Music in London. He has published Schubert: The Complete Song Texts (Gollancz) and contributed articles to many reference works, including the latest edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

English language program notes are provided by the Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation.


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