Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) is regarded as the greatest music composer of Czechoslovakia. This Romantic-era composer is perhaps best-known for his 9th Symphony, also known as the "New World Symphony”, one of the greatest symphonies in Classical music. I first listened to Slavonic dances when it came as a bonus along with a CD containing his 9th Symphony.
The Slavonic Dances are a series of 16 orchestral pieces composed by Antonín Dvorak in 1878 and 1886 and published in two sets as Opus 46 and Opus 72 respectively (1-8 in OP46 and 9-16 in OP 72). Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, demonstrates not only the musical legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the formation of Czechoslovakia but also of the Slavic people. These are vibrant, stirring performances inspired primarily by Czech folk music. But, Unlike Brahm's "Hungarian Dances”, which were based on actual folk melodies, Dvorak didn't use a single bar of folk music in his works. It can be said that he immersed himself in the rhythm of folk music and styles of Slavic dances for his own invention.
He has thus made each "Slavonic Dance" a compact rhapsody able to stand on its own, in varied moods. Slavonic dances exuberantly expresses many of the distinctive qualities of Dvorak’s genius, among them his wealth of pure , fresh musical ideas; his ardent love for his land and people; and his inspired mastery of instrumentation. Vibrant with characteristic melody and rhythm, the Slavonic dances celebrate Czech dance forms, Czech humor and folk merriment as well as the supreme individuality of Dvorak’s music temperament. The Prestos and Allegros in these musical pieces are full of life without being bombastic. And the slower music has a lyrical sweetness while adding a meditational dimension to the music.
If you haven’t heard this before, this mirthful melodic music may remind you of the merriment of listening to a Mozartian rhapsody. There is a whole world within each small segment of these short musical pieces, a world that comes alive with every listening. One can simply put this on as background music (for it is beautiful and well-played), bounce along to it, or even just sit down and absorb every sound. They are played with sovereignty, energy, wildness and noblesse.
The first number , OP 46 No.1, is from one of Dvorak’s favourite dance forms. This is titled Furiant Presto has the fast and fiery rhythm change characteristics of a Bohemian dance (Furiant). After a crashing chord, the fullorchestra launches into a vigorous presto theme which is repeated. This is followed by a quieter theme stated by the woodwinds. This piece linked below in Youtube is directed by the famous Japanese conductor Seiji Ozaka. His unique conducting style and easy personality inspire the thousands of musicians under his direction as well as his audiences. He is said to have phenomenal photographic memory of the scores of all great composers. Seiji is electrifyingly alive on the stage.
The No.9 of Op 72 titled Odzemek- Molto vivace is a brilliantly scored dance in the rhythm of the Slovakian Odzemek or Shepherd’s dance. The exuberant zest for life and tremendous vitality that ensues in the first bars of this piece is packed with hot-blooded ardour. It is an incredibly infectious piece.
The No.10 of OP 72 titled- Starodávný- Allegretto grazioso - has been identified as an example of the Lachian starodavny , a processional dance. This one is one of my favourites. Here the strings come to the force in Dvorak’s reduced orchestration. It somehow brings a mood of melancholy that grows increasingly sombre. It is again conducted by Seiji.The Cellist is none other than Yo-Yo Ma , one of the greatest cellists alive and the violinist is equally reputed Itzhak Perlman. It is fun to watch them compete like kids.
(The No.10 of OP 72 is followed by the lively number No.7 in C Minor. It is pleasure to watch Seiji in this one too )
I am also posting here a 1955 recording conducted by Vaclav Talich, one of the greatest Czech conductors and an authority on Slavonic dances. Dvorak's popular Slavonic Dances are traditionally approached rustically, and the definitive vaclav Talich recording from decades past immerses you immediately into a Czech landscape of peasant festivities. The sound of the orchestra may not be very gorgeous but I love them for its neutrality and they are shorn of embellishment.
I must acknowledge that I lack in-depth knowledge in explaining more on these compositions as I have not learned any music in a systematic manner though my mother was a music teacher. But then, the language of music is universal and I hope the above musical pieces are good to drive away the winter blues.