Antonín Dvořák Svatební košile, Opus 69
1841 - 1904
Born in rural Bohemia to inn-keepers who valued music, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) began studying violin at an early age. In 1857 at age 16, eschewing the family business, Dvořák pursued music at the the Institute for Church Music in Prague. After graduating, he eked by as a piano teacher and violist for the Komzak Ensemble, while composing on the side. The first public performances of his compositions took place in Prague in 1872 and 1873 to great success; and yet at age 32 he was still unknown beyond his homeland. It took one fateful application to the Austrian State Prize for Composition in 1874, a competition for which Johannes Brahms sat on the jury. Enamored and impressed by Dvořák’s skill and potential, Brahms recommended the bourgeoning Czech composer to his publisher Simrock (a leading and influential German publisher), who quickly commissioned a new work. The resulting composition, Slavonic Dances (Opus 46), was well-received beyond the Czech Republic, launching his international career.
His first starkly religious work (and coincidentally his first major choral symphonic work), was his setting of the Stabat Mater. Its success throughout the United Kingdom prompted a commission from the city of Birmingham to compose a cantata for their 1885 Triennial Music Festival, for which Dvořák presented Svatební košile (The Spectre’s Bride). The libretto was taken from Kytice (Bouquet),a collection of Czech folk tales collected and written by poet and folklore specialist Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-1870). Initially composed to Erben’s original Czech poetry for the world premier in Plzeň in March of 1885, the libretto was translated to English for the Birmingham premier later that year under Dvořák’s baton. The festival’s performance of Svatební košile was such a resounding success that Birmingham later commissioned Dvořák for their 1891 festival, for which he wrote his Requiem.
The Spectre’s Bride is driven narratively and musically by the strong imagery and plot of the story. A young maiden, orphaned and lonely, prays to the Virgin Mary to return her bridegroom, who had disappeared abroad, at any cost. Her wish is granted and he returns to her - from beyond the grave. Eager to marry at once, he whisks her away on a forceful journey by night through the Czech countryside (evoking Franz Schubert’s setting of Johann Goethe’s poem Erlkönig), tossing away her books of prayer, her rosary, and her cross along the way. They come to a cemetery where he flagrantly throws away the ceremonial wedding shirts she had sewn for the occasion. At last suspicious of her bridegroom and his motives, the maiden escapes from his grasp and finds shelter in a mausoleum - where a corpse lays. The maiden and her bridegroom then descend into a battle of wills; her bridegroom endeavors to raise the corpse to allow him (and other ghouls and night terrors) entrance to the mausoleum while the maiden prays once more to the Virgin Mary for the dead to stay at rest and for forgiveness from her earlier, heedless prayer. The maiden’s reverence and self-reflection in her final prayer and the timely hint of daybreak save her from the horrors her ghostly bridegroom had planned.
Erben’s fantastical poem supplied Dvořák with ample expressive opportunities, and he overlooked none. Dvořák divides the narrative into three characters to guide the listener through the tale - the maiden (Soprano soloist), the bridegroom (Tenor soloist), and the narrator (sung by the Bass soloist and mixed chorus). The story is bookended by the Soprano’s preghiere solos, making her character arc the focus of the story. A descending fifth lilts throughout the overture and opening movement of the work under the chorus as they sing Už jedenáctá odbila (the clock had chimed eleven hours) which suggests the unsettling feeling that, unbeknownst to her as of yet, the maiden’s time is running short. Leaping triadic movement imitates the long strides and leaps the Bridegroom takes as they vault in haste to reach the cemetery through movements 6 and 9 (A on tu napřed skok a skok - With bounds and leaps he led the way). Movement 15 stars the decisive moment where the maiden flees from her evil bridegroom, playfully set to a fugue, or a contrapuntal technique in which a short musical theme is introduced successively by each vocal part, as if each new melodic entrance is chasing the last.
Dvořák, known for adeptly imbibing German Romantic harmonies and symphonic tradition with the influence of Bohemian folk rhythms and tonalities, chose to let Czech melodies shine during some of the most dramatic and pivotal moments of story development, emphasizing how inherently and naturally Czech this folk tale is. We hear these folk melodies in movement 11, as they come upon the church and cemetery; and in movement 16 as the Bridegroom demands entry to the mausoleum as the maiden prays for redemption and rescue (A tu na dvéře: buch, buch, buch! - The door resounded: bang, bang, bang!; Ty mrtvý, lež a nevstávej - You dead one, don’t attempt to rise).
Ultimately, the arc of Erben’s story and Dvořák’s setting has a satisfying resolution, and yet the cautionary moral sounds beyond the last note of the work: the tragedy of life is not that we do not get what we want, but that we get exactly what we ask for.
— Julia Morris, assistant conductor