Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Dvorák's Biblical Songs, Op. 99: A Concise Guide to Performance

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Dvorák's Biblical Songs, Op. 99: A Concise Guide to Performance

Article excerpt

Dvorak's Biblical Songs, op. 99, composed in 1894, an intensely personal work in the composer's oeuvre, provides an example of his mastery of the nuances of the Czech language to reinforce the meaning of the text. The Biblical Songs present a challenge to many vocalists in that they require comprehension of Czech pronunciation, a language that is not a common study for most vocal students. This article will provide a concise background on the work, as well as tools to prepare a performance of the cycle, including basic rules of Czech pronunciation and expression.

At the time when Dvořák composed the songs, he was in an emotionally turbulent state. Already mourning the recent deaths of dear friends Charles Gounod (October 18, 1893), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (November 6, 1893), and Hans Von Biilow (February 12, 1894), he was living and working in New York, feeling nostalgic for his homeland, when he heard the news that his father was on his deathbed. In 1894, Dvořák set aside his work on the Piano Suite in A major to begin composing the songs. Michael Beckerman, in his book on Dvorak's time in America, wrote of the Biblical Songs, "The song cycle, often dark and chromatic, appears as a subtle exploration of the composer's inner world."1 According to Beckerman, the cycle is an example of "a simple, strong man struggling to understand his life and fate."2 Given the losses he suffered along with being far from home, it appears that Dvořák composed this cycle to commune with God and reaffirm his faith in the wake of such profound sorrow.

During the course of his career, Dvořák wrote few religious pieces; about five percent of his works were composed on liturgical subjects, which is surprising since Dvořák was raised Catholic and remained deeply religious throughout his life. Dr. Josef Zubatý, a great admirer and biographer of Dvořák, wrote, "A characteristic of Dvorak's nature was his piety... which was rooted in his own heart... Dvořák was convinced to the depths of his being that over the world there watches a higher power which directs everything... and he was devoted to that power with fervor and gratitude."3 In spite of his religious upbringing, Dvořák found liturgical music challenging to compose. John Clapham notes that "Dvořák was not as much at ease in composing the Christian music for St. Ludmilla as he was in writing the pagan music, which suggests that he found it more difficult to compose religious music, unless he had a really good cause to do so, and entirely suitable words to set."4

Several of his religious works had specific impetus for their composition. He began work on the Stabat Mater, considered by Clapham to be "the work of a sincere and pious Catholic,"5 in 1876, only a few months after the death of his two-day-old daughter, Josefa. Once he was left childless after the successive deaths of his son and his eleven-month-old daughter in 1877, he interrupted work on the Variations and some smaller works to prepare the full score of the Stabat Mater. Other spiritual works, such as his Requiem, were not composed as the result of a specific loss or in contemplation of his own eventual demise, but instead were written to reaffirm his relationship with God. Referring to these works, Clapham wrote, "it is probable that as a sincere and devout Catholic he felt called upon to testify to his faith in God... through his art... he had given musical expression to his belief in Christ... and in God."6 Similarly, his Mass in D Major had no specific tragedy as impulse for the composition, but Dvořák himself wrote of the mass, "I think it will be a work which will fully answer its purpose ... Faith, hope and love to God Almighty and thanks for the great gift of being enabled to bring this work in the praise of the Highest."7 These examples serve to emphasize that Dvořák felt that it was his duty to express his faith in God through his musical gift.

Dvorak's compositional process for the Biblical Songs is more akin to that of his Stabat Mater. …

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