Narrative and form in Dvo\v r\'ak's symphonic poems based on the folk poetry of Karel Jarom\'\i r Erben

Date of Completion

January 1997


Literature, Slavic and East European|Folklore|Music




Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's last orchestral works were five symphonic poems written in the years 1896-97, following his return from a sojourn in the United States. All but the last of these works, The Hero's Song, were inspired by poetry of the Czech poet Karel Jaromir Erben. Dvorak's settings--The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and The Wild Dove--are unique within the genre largely because they portray the narrative elements of their source texts with much greater specificity than symphonic poems by other composers. Details of plot such as sound effects depicting specific events and themes associated with individual characters are meticulously represented. The music also expresses actual dialogue in the source poems, through the use of speech-melody, or melody that bears the characteristic rhythms of the Czech poetry because they were originally composed as direct settings of lines from the text.^ Narrative-musical connections are not limited to surface elements, however; they also play a part in the larger structure of the music. Whereas key relationships are most often linked to elements of the narrative, the thematic organization and sectional divisions derive from traditional instrumental forms--usually sonata- or rondo-like arrangements. Poems that are episodic, for example, are represented by the alternating sectional scheme of the rondo. Each large form also contains within it smaller local constructions such as ternary forms. Often these smaller units relate to more detailed events in the narrative.^ A remarkable characteristic of Dvorak's forms is the occasional overlapping or hybridization of more than one form in a single work. Sonata form, for example, may be combined with elements of the multi-movement sonata cycle (The Noon Witch), or a linear narrative treatment may also contain elements of a rondo with numerous ternary substructures (The Golden Spinning Wheel). Detailed analyses of these pieces reveal the various interrelationships of narrative and form, and help to explain their unique place within the symphonic poem genre. ^