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Inside The Music: Brave New World

Discover more about classical music in our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

Sneaking under the wire in the Shakespeare 400th anniversary year, Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture ‘Hamlet’ is one of several Shakespearean works the theatre-loving Russian composer wrote – he seemed to identify his own troubled life with that of Hamlet, a man  doomed by his tragic flaws.

It’s a work of great drama and introspection. Written 40 years earlier, Liszt’s 1840 Second Piano Concerto is also packed full of passion, this time veering between tenderness and joy, and helter-skelter impetuousness. And, as the US prepares to go to the polls to choose its president, Dvořák’s action-packed Symphony No. 9 pays tribute to the folk roots of modern America.

10 things you didn’t know about… Dvořák

  • Dvořák was almost a butcher instead of a composer – his father assumed his son would continue the family trade.
  • In 1893, Dvořák spent time with the Iroquois Indians in Iowa, listening to their traditional music. It inspired him to write his ‘American’ String Quartet.
  • The composer enjoyed weightlifting and was partial to a game of skittles.
  • He also enjoyed pigeon racing and train-spotting, and while in America developed a love of steamboats.
  • As a composer, Dvořák found it hard to find neighbours who would put up with his composing in the middle of the night. He had to move house several times.
  • In the 1860s, Dvořák supplemented his income by playing the violin in Prague cafés.
  • The Hovis advertisement, which brought the slow movement of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony to millions of new ears (albeit in a brass band arrangement), was filmed on Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, Dorset in 1973.
  • Dvořák married Anna Čermáková in 1873, but only after being turned down by her sister, Josefina.
  • The piano duet score for the first volume of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances sold out in a day in 1878, testament to the power of the domestic music market. But then, television wasn’t a thing in those days.
  • While in London in 1896, Dvořák mistook the Athanaeum Club in Pall Mall for a café and was promptly ejected…

VIDEO: Oliver Condy

VIDEO: Jonathan James

Listen out for… 5 key moments

    1. 1. Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture ‘Hamlet’

    Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, is represented by a beautiful oboe solo whose melancholy foresees the tragedy to come.

    1. 2. Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 2

    You might expect a Liszt piano concerto to open with virtuosic bluster, but instead, the first couple of minutes are among the composer’s most intimate and tender. But that mood doesn’t last long…

    1. 3. Five minutes from the end of the piece, Liszt creates a comic march from the opening movement’s theme, which verges on the vulgar. Somehow, however, Liszt has the chutzpah to make it work.
    2. 4. Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 in E minor ‘From the New World’

    Dvořák claimed not to have used traditional American melodies in his symphony, but listen to the first movement’s second melody four minutes in, and you can make out echoes of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.

    1. 5. Dvořák takes us to a barn dance in the fourth and final movement, a moment of levity in amongst the great drama and passion that closes this incredible work.

A superstar pianist and two 400ths

Franz Liszt’s influence on the world of piano performance could never be overstated. Virtuosic with a commanding stage presence, the 19th-century Hungarian was the instrument’s first superstar performer, raising piano technique to a whole new level. And his compositions shed considerable light on the sort of technique he possessed – it takes the very best players today to simply play the notes, let alone make musical sense of them. But there was a soft side to Liszt, too – far from being the fiery, intemperate showman we imagine he was, Liszt was blessed with an unusual sensitivity both on and off stage: Robert Schumann, who heard him play, was taken by the young man’s ‘tenderness and boldness of emotion’. And it’s those qualities that can be heard at the start of the Second Piano Concerto as the piano spends several minutes accompanying the orchestra, rather than the other way round. Soft arpeggios, however, eventually give way to something more stormy and skittish, allowing the pianist to show the full range of their technique and musicality. And from there, the concerto continues headlong to its conclusion, an adventure for both soloist and orchestra.

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 was written to celebrate 400 years since Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America – the Czech composer had been invited by the great American arts patron, Jeanette Thurber, to spent some time in the States not only to head up New York’s National Conservatory of Music, but also to kick start the classical scene and perhaps help develop some sort of national music style. She offered him a handsome salary, but it wasn’t enough to stop his homesickness, and he left after just three years. Still, during his time there, he wrote his Symphony ‘From the New World’, a work that contains numerous allusions to American spirituals and folk music including, if you listen carefully to first movement’s second melody, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. In truth, however, Dvořák’s symphony contains no real American melodies. ‘I tried to write only in the spirit of those national American melodies,’ he wrote.

Tchaikovsky’s dramatic, powerful Fantasy Overture ‘Hamlet’ was the latest in a long line of his Shakespeare-inspired works – the Russian composer was a keen theatre-goer. You’ll be able to spot musical clues to the play’s characters and action, including the opening ‘Hamlet’ theme after a slow introduction that sets the general tone, the clock striking 12, Ophelia, painted by a beautiful oboe melody and Fortinbras represented by grand martial music.

Further listening

Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 1

An equally engaging concerto that starts as it means to go on. Enjoy the delightful second movement that sees the orchestral triangle employed to charming effect.

Recommended recording: Krystian Zimerman (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa (Deutsche Grammophon 423 5712)

Dvořák – String Quartet No. 12 ‘American’

Hear more of Dvořák’s US adventures in a work that has a rustic, folk song feel. And try to spot the musical reference to the call of the scarlet tanager, a bird native to America, in the first violin part of the third movement.

Words: Oliver Condy

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