Dvořák: Legend for Orchestra, Opus 59, No.6

Legend No. 6 from Legends for Orchestra, Opus 59

Antonín Leopold Dvořák was born on September 8, 1841, in the village of Mühlhausen (Nelahozeves), Bohemia, and he died in Prague on May 1, 1904. The Legends, Opus 59, were initially written between late December 1880 and March 22, 1881, as a set of pieces for piano four-hands. In November and December 1881, Dvořák orchestrated the Legends, which received their premiere as a complete cycle on May 7, 1882, at the Prague Conservatory, with Antonín Bennewitz conducting. The first and only previous San Francisco Symphony performances of the Legends were in October 2013, in concerts led by Edwin Outwater. No. 6 is scored for a relatively modest orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, harp, and strings. Performance time: about five minutes.

The Legends, originally composed as a set of duets for piano four-hands, take us back to the composer’s period of breakthrough, when Dvořák was emerging as a respected new voice in Europe and establishing the reputation that would make him such an exemplary success story. Dvořák developed into “Romantic music’s most versatile genius,” as David Hurwitz titles his passionate exploration of the full scope of this composer.

Johannes Brahms played an essential role in the discovery of Dvořák. The latter had been trying to provide for his family while satisfying his creativity by cobbling together a mixture of performing and composing. But he had only managed to get so far in the Prague of the early 1870s. Dvořák’s decision to apply for a government grant administered from Vienna brought him to the attention of the dean of music critics in the imperial capital, Eduard Hanslick. With Bohemian roots of his own, Hanslick helped facilitate the grant and joined with Brahms to spread the word about the young composer. Dvořák’s ongoing sense of gratitude is apparent from his dedication of the Legends to Hanslick, who replied with a rather sweet comment on the work as a whole: “Perhaps this one is the loveliest . . . perhaps it’s another, for there will be differing opinions on that score. But there is just one overall verdict: that all are lovely!”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the ten miniatures that make up Legends is how much character the composer packs into each, despite their miniaturism—which extends to Dvořák’s fine scoring for what is essentially a chamber orchestra—and lack of symphonic “heft.” Each legend nevertheless manages to evoke a particular color, a palpable world. In Legend No. 6, which has become the best known of this otherwise unjustly neglected set, Dvořák adds a touch of “bardic” mystique with his added harp accompaniment—its flowing triplets give rhythmic shape to the first of a series of motivic ideas, each of which is interrelated. In a contrasting section, Dvořák quotes from the slow movement of his Third Symphony, with its hint of something both archaic and faintly heroic. The coda settles into a twilight of quiet major chords.

Thomas May

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

More About the Music
Recordings:Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Philips)  |  Charles Mackerras and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Supraphon) 

Reading: Dvořák: Romantic Music’s Most Versatile Genius, David Hurwitz (Amadeus)  |  Dvořák and His World (Bard Music Festival), edited by Michael Beckerman (Princeton University Press)

(May 2014)