Dvorak – In Nature’s Realm: a programme note

For those who enjoy a good rags-to-riches story, Dvorak’s life is a must. He was born the son of an innkeeper in 1841 and, at an early age, learned the violin in order to entertain his parents’ customers. His father placed great importance on his learning a trade, though, and so he became apprenticed to a butcher in the village, somehow managing to keep up his musical studies through this time of poverty until he gained a position as a viola player in the orchestra of the new National Theatre. An opera (King and Collier), his Stabat Mater, and the encouragement and support of an admiring Johannes Brahms then brought him increasing recognition and public acclaim until, in 1892, he was invited to America to take up a post as head of the new National Conservatoire in New York. On his return, in 1895, he became Director of the Prague Conservatoire and was finally elected a member of the Austro-Hungarian House of Peers.

The musical world around Dvorak at that time was one of cultural conflict as the nascent Bohemian Nationalist movement sought to establish itself in the face of Austrian dominance. As Glinka and the “Mighty Handful” were doing with Russian music, Smetana was seeking to create a body of work that was wholly Czech in character and it is clear from so much of his work that this was an aim that Dvorak was artistically and temperamentally suited to follow. However, his place in the story is in fact more like that of Tchaikovsky – his music is redolent with the colours and sounds of his native culture but he looks firmly towards the conventions of Germany and Austria for his form and structure. Rather than the operas and tone poems of his colleagues, he is much better known for his symphonies, concertos, and chamber pieces. Clearly he is striving for acceptance not just at home but in the wider musical world: perhaps in this we perceive the influence of his beloved Brahms?

The Overture “In Nature’s Realm” was written as he was preparing to leave for the US in 1892. It forms the first part of the so-called “Triple Overture,” originally titled “Nature, Life, and Love” which was conceived almost as a symphony without a slow movement. However, as with the other overtures, “Carnival” and “Othello,” it is now almost invariably performed alone. A little masterpiece, it encapsulates in microcosm so much of the essence of Dvorak and his music, with rich Brahmsian sonority, Bohemian luminosity, and birdsong and nature sounds all in perfect balance.