Dvořák: Legends for Orchestra, Opus 59, Nos. 2, 6, and 10

Antonín Leopold Dvořák was born on September 8, 1841, in the village of Mühlhausen (currently Nelahozeves), just north of Prague, which was then part of the Hapsburg Empire; 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. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The work is scored for a relatively modest orchestra of two flutes (one flute in Legend 2), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns (two horns in Legend 6), harp (Legend 6 only), and strings. Performance time for Legends 2, 6, and 10: about fourteen minutes.

What was it about Antonín Dvořák, this remarkably unpretentious yet accomplished composer from the margins of the Austro-German cultural establishment, that so intrigued Americans in the late nineteenth century? For a clue, just take a glance at the writings of Henry Edward Krehbiel (1854-1923), son of a German immigrant himself, who became the self-taught but erudite music editor of the New York Tribune and a prolific author. Highly influential as a proselytizer on behalf of indigenous American music, Krehbiel was particularly devoted to what would later become known as ethnomusicology. He embraced the cause of composers like Dvořák and what they had to offer—both in their music and in their personal success stories—to aspiring American artists.

“[A] story of manifest destiny, of signal triumph over obstacle and discouraging environment,” wrote Krehbiel in a magazine profile of the Bohemian composer in conjunction with Dvořák’s American sojourn in the 1890s. “To rehearse it stimulates hope, reanimates ambition, and helps to keep alive popular belief in the reality of that precious attribute called genius.”As the musicologist Joseph Horowitz observes, Dvořák deeply impressed his New York hosts by virtue of his “rustic roots and egalitarian temperament” and was exactly “the kind of cultural nationalist to inspire Americans.”

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. Already in his early years Dvořák demonstrated the wide-ranging curiosity and flexibility that enabled him to write for chamber, symphonic, and dramatic contexts. Dvořák developed into “Romantic music’s most versatile genius,” as David Hurwitz titles his passionate exploration of the full scope of this composer. For all their slant in favor of “self-made” personalities, the Americans seem to have gotten this aspect of Dvořák right.

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!”

Brahms in turn got his publisher, the influential Fritz Simrock, to take an interest in Dvořák. This resulted in Simrock’s commissioning of the first set of Slavonic Dances(Opus 46). The success of the first set of Slavonic Dances in 1878 immediately won Dvořák a larger following, but it also typecast him as an “ethnic” composer with a flair for tapping into folkloric Czech sources—above all in the areas of rhythm and melody. A central challenge Dvořák faced both in these years of emergence and at the height of his success was how to remain true to his voice and to his proud, imaginative use of Bohemian idioms while claiming his own place within the tradition of canonical composers.

In the period since the runaway success of the first set of Slavonic Dances, Dvořák had composed his Sixth Symphony—his first major symphonic work written with a new awareness of his international audience; the score was actually published by Simrock as his official “First Symphony.” (Written for the Vienna Philharmonic, the Sixth was in the event premiered by the Czech Philharmonic in a switcheroo that indicates the bias and marginalization with which Dvořák still had to contend.) The Legends in one sense represents a breather of sorts following that creative expenditure. Naturally, Simrock also hoped to capitalize on the ever-popular piano four-hands market (though Dvořák would soon orchestrate the collection). These ten miniatures may have provided an opportunity for Dvořák to step back and refresh his perspective on Bohemian folklore and indigenous musical elements.

Why such an evocative title for a set of pieces that are accompanied by no official program? Did Dvořák indeed have particular Czech legends in mind while imagining these miniatures? Overall, the Legends convey a sense of greater ambition than the instantly accessible Slavonic Dances, if that is a valid way to read their variety of nuance and frequently enigmatic, bittersweet character. Both Hanslick and Brahms were famously associated with the “camp” opposed to program music (though, as in the case of the Tragic Overture and even, arguably, the symphonies, Brahms may well have imagined private, undisclosed programs himself). The Finnish musicologist/semiologist Eemo Tarasti remarks that the term “legend” was understood to imply the exemplary life story of a saint and that legends are often associated with miracles. The musical reflections on the life of Saint Francis by Franz Liszt—a most un-Brahmsian model—have been suggested as one possible prototype. Tarasti describes the alluring combination of sacred, “balladic,” and “fantastic” layers of suggested meaning here that add up to a “ ‘mythical’ or ‘legendary’ style.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the 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. Legend No. 2 in particular foreshadows the “sound” of some of Dvořák’s American works, still over a decade in the future—likely from the use of pentatonic elements. The modest scope of the thematic ideas still allows for a surprising unexpected range of emotions. There’s also a continual shifting of ground between major and minor and of dynamic levels. Eliciting a pace that feels right and yet suitably flexible, in keeping with Dvořák’s highly varied tempo markings, poses a particular challenge in interpreting this music.

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.

The tenth and final Legend belies the dark tonality in which it opens (B-flat minor) through the gentleness both of the melodic shape and of its scoring, while the harmonies themselves subtly warm up within a generally bittersweet context. Easy like all of the other Legends to follow in its simple form—Dvořák seems to allude to Schubert’s prototypes of lyrical miniaturism—the Legend No. 10 takes a turn toward pastoral ease in the horn melody of the contrasting section, while each reprise contains new delights of color. With all of its companions, this final Legend shares “a static, quiet, and affective quality,” writes Tarasti. “There is no concern about any mythical greatness or heroism, since the dimensions of myth have been diminished into a ‘self-forgetting pleasure’ typical rather of a fairy tale. Thus Dvořák’s Legends form a series of expressive pictures, tableaux vivants representing scenes from a nation’s prehistory.”

—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)  |  Christian Lindberg and the Nordic Chamber Orchestra (BIS)  |  For the piano four-hands version: Ingryd Thorson and Julian Thurber (Brilliant Classics)

Reading: New Worlds of Antonín Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life, by Michael Brim Beckerman (W.W. Norton)  |  Dvořák: Romantic Music’s Most Versatile Genius, David Hurwitz (Amadeus)  |  Dvořák and His World (Bard Music Festival), edited by Michael Beckerman (Princeton University Press)  |  Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from American’s Fin de Siècle, by Joseph Horowitz (University of California Press)  |  Myth and Music: A Semiotic Approach to the Aesthetics of Myth in Music, by Eero Tarasti (Mouton)