ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK AND RICHARD WAGNER

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 6 March 2015 | 9:51:00 pm

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK AND RICHARD WAGNER
Jarmila Gabrielová

Abstract: The essay deals with the relation of prominent Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) to the personality and work of Richard Wagner (1813–1883). As opposed to the common opinions linking Dvořák’s name with Wagner‘s ideological opponents and placing his ‘Wagnerian’ period in the early phase of his career only, our examination shows that Dvořák’s interest in Wagner and his music was of deep and lasting nature and was significant for him throughout the whole of his life.

Today, more than a hundred years later, it is hard to imagine what a tremendous influence the life and work of Richard Wagner had on the minds of his contemporaries, or his impact on at least the next two generations of composers and their audiences. Without exaggeration we can say that almost no important musicians of the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century remained indifferent to Wagner’s legacy, without taking note of it–regardless of whether, in the period atmosphere of polarised opinions and values, they considered the period atmosphere of polarised opinions and values, they considered themselves ‘Wagnerians’ and continued consciously along the trail he had blazed, or whether they found themselves in the camp of the opposition as regards both art and views of the world. Everything indicates that
Antonín Dvořák (born 8 September 1841 in Nelahozeves, died 1 May
1904 in Prague), whose name is often linked with Wagner’s ideological
opponents, was no exception in this regard.

Music historians and journalists who have devoted detailed attention to Dvořák’s life have generally been in agreement in their view of his relation to Richard Wagner. They all place Dvořák’s ‘Wagnerian’ (or ‘New German’) period in the early phase of his career, in the 1860s. They refer to a tendency toward expansion and loosening of form manifesting itself in his orchestral works from this period, i.e. in the first two symphonies and the A major cello concerto, and also point out what they take to be allusions to particular passages from Wagner’s music, not only in Dvořák’s operas Alfred (1870) and Král a uhlíř (King and Charcoal Burner, first setting, from 1871) but even in chamber works, namely the three string quartets without opus number in B flat major, D major, and E minor from 1868-70. Agreement prevails also in the notion that this ‘Wagnerian’ and ‘New German’ enchantment represents only a short episode in Dvořák’s stylistic development, which ended definitively in the early 1870s.

Space does not allow a detailed analysis here, aimed at investigating the truth and justification of these interpretations. Instead I shall attempt to map and classify the available evidence as to when and where Dvořák may have encountered Wagner’s works, what music by Wagner he may have known, and what his opinion was on this music and its composer.

If we start by seeking the source of the common opinions regarding Dvořák’s ‘Wagnerianism’, we find with little difficulty that they undoubtedly came from the composer himself. However, he spoke of his relation to Wagner in his youth only many years later, in a biographical interview with the British journalist Paul Pry (about whom we have no information) during his third concert trip to England in the spring of 1885. More than twenty years after the fact, and more than two years after Wagner’s death, Dvořák recalled very vividly the composer’s visit
to Prague (in 1863), saying ‘I was perfectly crazy about him, and recollect
following him as he walked along the streets to get a chance now and again
of seeing the great little man’s face.’ In the same context he mentions Wagner’s significant influence on the harmony and orchestration of his opera Král a uhlíř (first setting, from 1871), which however he says he later destroyed.

 Another source of information about inspiration from Wagner is a letter Dvořák wrote to the Viennese critic and music journalist Eusebius Mandyczewski on January 7, 1898 in which at Mandyczewski’s request he provides information on unpublished and unperformed works from his youth. In this case, however, he is considerably more reserved and only mentions briefly that he had written an overture in D flat - C (the overture to the opera Alfred), ‘wo sich auch schon Wagner meldet’ (where now Wagner, too, makes himself known’); by contrast he says his earlier symphony in B flat major (No. 2) from 1865 was marked by
the influence of Schumann.

 Discussions regarding where the beginning composer might have enountered Wagner’s music and which works he may have come to know before 1870 usually focus on the first public performances of Wagner’s works in Prague, during the 1850s and 1860s. They almost always refer to the Prague premieres of the operas Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) presented between 1854 and 1856 in what was then called the Landestheater (now the Estates Theatre) by the conductor and composer František Škroup; on the other hand the Prague premiere of Rienzi in October 1859 is not usually mentioned. Also cited are concerts of the Cecilia Society of
Prague given by Anton Apt, likewise in the 1850s, in particular a concert on February 27, 1858 that included a performance of Wagner’s cantata Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (The Love Feast of the Apostles) as well as a concert on March 12, 1859 featuring Hans von Bülow as both conductor and pianist which included the prelude to Tristan und Isolde. And at the centre of attention stand three Prague concerts on Žofín Island conducted by Wagner himself on February 8 and November 5 and 8, 1863, which included excerpts from operas not yet published or performed on stage at that time: Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Walküre, and Siegfried.


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