THE GOLDEN SPINNING WHEEL, OPUS 109
ALAN GILBERT, CONDUCTOR
I have to confess that it has taken a long time for me to warm to the music of Dvorak (1841-1904). The Czech composer’s impressive body of work was primarily symphonic—nine symphonies—and I’ve made many, many attempts to “get into” them. Although my musician friends may not hear those symphonies the same way I do, it has always felt to me that Dvorak is continually modulating, continually changing key, never giving the listener TIME to appreciate him.
But perhaps this says more about me than about Dvorak.
I had not intentionally heard much Dvorak while growing up until I read about Brahms’ association with him. Brahms, as my readers know, is a composer whose music—all of it—I know and love. Brahms (b. 1833) was not much older than Dvorak when he was a judge in the Austrian State Prize competition in 1874. It was then that he—Brahms—heard Dvorak’s entries into that competition—a truly massive submission consisting of fifteen works including two symphonies, several overtures and a song cycle. Brahms was totally impressed by Dvorak’s music. Dvorak won first prize, and his career, mainly centered in Prague, became considerably more solid. Up to this point in time, Dvorak had lived in near-poverty conditions. He did not own a piano, and at the time of his submission to this contest, he lived with five other men, one of whom owned a spinet piano and allowed Dvorak to compose on it.
In 1877, Dvorak entered the Austrian Prize competition once more, this time submitting his Moravian Duets and his Piano Concerto. Brahms was so struck with Dvorak’s talent that, after Dvorak once again won, he made Dvorak’s career part of his life’s work. He recommended Dvorak to his own publisher, and did everything he could, with his extensive connections all over the continent, to boost Dvorak’s career. Astonishingly, Brahms even copy-proofed and edited Dvorak’s scores, something that was just unheard of–the greatest composer in the world offering to do what was essentially regarded secretarial work for a MUCH lesser known composer. It would be as if Tolstoy, in his day, ASKED to edit the works of an unknown author from another country.
Dvorak’s career now blossomed, becoming international. The British, in particular, loved his music—he was invited to London nine times. Dvorak came to America in the 1890’s, where he directed the newly created National Conservatory of Music, an institution that—quite unusual for its time—admitted blacks and women on equal footing with white men. Dvorak’s main purpose in coming to the states, however, was compositional: in the same way that he had been incorporating Czech folk songs in his own music, he felt that there was an “American Music” waiting to be discovered in African-American and Native American music, and that it should become the basis for future American music. He struck up a great friendship with Harry Burleigh, one of the very first African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional American spirituals.
Dvorak’s secretary while he was in New York was a young Czech, whose family was from a Czech community in Iowa. Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 there, absorbing as much of what he felt to be the “real” America as he could. Back in New York, he had been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write a major work. His Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”)—far and away his most popular work to this day—was a rousing success, and can be seen as a distillation of the American influence upon Dvorak’s musical sensibilities. Its second movement, Largo, incorporates the famous spiritual-like song, “Goin’ Home.”
Although Dvorak returned to Europe in 1895—the conservatory had fallen on hard financial times, and he was truly homesick—his reputation and influence on music—and on American music—was substantial.
Dvorak’s entire output, as I mentioned, is substantial. I’ll be returning to him at a later date here with his Serenade for Strings. But, I did find, in Dvorak’s symphonic poems, what to me is the “real” Dvorak—a talent who keeps you continually interested and who does not feel the compulsion to continually be changing keys, thinking perhaps that is the best way to keep listeners involved.
Dvorak wrote five symphonic poems in his early fifties: The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wild Dove, and A Hero’s Song. With the exception of A Hero’s Song, which some consider to be Dvorak’s “musical” autobiography, the other four symphonic poems are based on poetry by Karel Jaromir Erben, a great Czech folklorist.
The stories are essentially fairy tales. The story of the Golden Spinning Wheel is definitely NOT your typical happy-ending, nice-moral-of-the-story fairy tale. It is VERY Stephen King-ish. Here is a synopsis:
While out riding, a king happens upon a young lady, Dornička, and falls in love with her. He asks her step-mother to bring her to his castle. The step-mother and step-sister set off towards the king’s castle with Dornička. On the way, they murder her, hack off her feet and hands, and cut out her eyes. The step-sister poses as Dornička and marries the king, after which he is called away to battle.
Meanwhile, in the forest, a magician finds Dornička’s remains and decides to bring her back to life. He sends a page to the castle to persuade the step-sister to part with “two feet” in return for a golden spinning wheel, “two hands” for a golden distaff, and “two eyes” for a golden spindle. The body complete again, the magician brings Dornička back to life.
The king returns from battle and hears the golden spinning wheel tell the gruesome details of Dornička’s murder. The king goes off into the forest to be reunited with her. The two murderesses are thrown to the wolves.
How’s THAT for a bedtime story for your kids?
I am linking to a great performance, which is further heightened by its inclusion of the story appearing onscreen as the work progresses. I feel this entire work—despite the gruesomeness of its programmatic “plot”–is absolutely lovely. Maybe you will think the same thing, I hope so.