Program Notes

Carnival Overture, Opus 92

Antonín Dvořák
BORN: September 8, 1841. Mühlhausen (Nelahozeves), Bohemia
DIED: May 1, 1904. Prague

COMPOSED: 1891. On Dvořák‘s manuscript, though not in the printed score, the overture is dedicated to the Czech University of Prague

WORLD PREMIERE: April 28, 1892. The composer led the Orchestra of the National Theatre, in Prague

NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: October 21, 1892. Dvořák also conducted the first performance in North America, in a concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1913. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—October 2010. James Conlon conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 10 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Antonín Dvořák developed rather slowly as a composer and was still laboring in poverty and obscurity as he approached middle age. His lucky break finally came in 1877, when the influential Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick took a shine to some of his pieces and encouraged the thirty-six-year-old Czech composer to send some scores to Johannes Brahms. That eminence was so delighted with what he received that he recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock, who immediately published Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, commissioned a collection titled Slavonic Dances, and contracted a first option on all of the composer’s new works. Dvořák and Brahms became personal friends, and the former quickly gained the support of other important figures of the Brahms circle, including the violinist Joseph Joachim and the conductors Hans Richter (to whom Dvořák would dedicate his Sixth Symphony) and Hans von Bülow (who made Dvořák’s Hussite Overture a mainstay of his repertory).

Thus was launched the career of the man who would be embraced as the quintessential Bohemian composer, both in his native land and beyond Czech borders. In 1883 Dvořák was invited to conduct in London in what would prove to be the first of nine visits to England; during one of them, in July 1891, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. This he added to a growing shelf of awards that already included the Austrian Order of the Iron Crown (bestowed in 1889) and an honorary doctorate from the Czech University of Prague (in 1890).

In January 1891 Dvořák began teaching in the capacity of professor of composition and instrumentation at Prague Conservatory, and that June he was approached by Jeannette Thurber, a Paris-trained American musician who was now a New York philanthropist bent on raising American musical pedagogy to European standards. To that end she had founded the National Conservatory of Music in New York, incorporated by special act of Congress in 1891. She was successful in persuading Dvořák to serve as its director, and in September 1892 he and his family moved to New York. He would remain until 1895 (though spending summer vacations elsewhere), building the school’s curriculum and faculty, appearing as a guest conductor, and composing.

Dvořák’s popular Carnival dates from this period when honors began falling on his shoulders, just as he was weighing Mrs. Thurber’s flattering offer. The piece was the second of a triptych of concert overtures intended to portray impressions of what a human soul might experience, in both positive and negative aspects. Nature, Life, and Love was his original name for the set, which was to be published under the single opus number 91, and it is in that form that the pieces were presented at their joint premiere. But the composer soon decided to publish them with more distinct identities, and when they appeared in print it was as three separate pieces: In Nature’s Realm (with the opus number 91 all to itself, composed from March 31 to July 8, 1891), Carnival (Opus 92, written from July 28 to September 12), and Othello (Opus 93, begun that November and completed on January 18, 1892).

THE MUSIC  Dvořák provisionally used the title Life (Carnival) in his sketches for the second of these pieces, but later opted for the more general Carnival. This work does indeed depict the high-spirited tumult of a festive carnival setting—barkers and vendors, boisterous crowds, and even, in a gentle passage, what Dvořák said was “a pair of straying lovers.” In a letter to the publisher Simrock, Brahms judged this work to be “merry” and remarked that “music directors will be thankful to you” for publishing the overtures, which they are. Dvořák conducted the joint premiere of the three pieces in Prague in April 1892 and six months later he included them in the program he led at Carnegie Hall on October 21, 1892. That event was billed as a celebration (nine days late) of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of America, but it was surely of more compelling interest for officially introducing musical New York to its distinguished new member.

James M. Keller

Recordings: Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonia (Pentatone)  |  James Conlon conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Apex)

ReadingDvořák, by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler (Marion Boyars)  |  Dvořák and his World, edited by Michael Beckerman (Princeton)  |  Dvořák in America 1892-1895, edited by John C. Tibbetts (Amadeus)  |  New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life, edited by Michael Beckerman (Norton) 

(October 2017)

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