A Great Composer, Serene First Lady
Byline: John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
David Hurwitz's Dvorak: Romantic Music's Most Versatile Genius (Amadeus, $27.95, 180 pages) is not a biography of the great Czech composer but an enthusiastic survey of his work, samples of which are included on the two CDs that come with the book. Referring only obliquely to Dvorak's generally contented family life (except for two tragic years in the mid-1870s when all three of his young children died), Mr. Hurwitz concentrates instead on "how a kid from the Bohemian countryside created a personal language of universal appeal and, in so doing, gave an entire nation its musical identity - even jumpstarting the process in at least two others (England and the United States) along the way."
In contrast to many other composers, Dvorak, Mr. Hurwitz notes, was not primarily a pianist but a violinist and he had extraordinary practical experience playing in an opera orchestra, which undergirded his gift for orchestral scoring. He then exploited what the author calls his "inexhaustible fund of superb musical ideas" to gain early and enduring international acclaim.
The author debunks "the slanted perception" of Dvorak's friendship with Brahms, in which a sophisticated Brahms is contrasted with the younger country bumpkin who has a knack for writing good melodies. Mr. Hurwitz notes that in an effort not to be typed as "the Czech Brahms," Dvorak used the term "Slavonic" to describe his efforts in a purportedly nationalist idiom. And Dvorak's tunes were original, whereas Brahms' Hungarian Dances were not.
In his analysis of Dvorak's works, Mr. Hurwitz says that he originally intended to cover just the best, but he ended up dealing with more than 90 individual works, from symphonies and chamber music to operas (sadly neglected in part because of the language problem), choral works, songs, and tone poems. He concludes that "a huge quantity of music by any measure deserves to be considered extraordinary. I cannot think of another composer after Beethoven who demonstrated Dvorak's scope and productivity while maintaining such a high standard of overall quality."
With respect to Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," Mr. Hurwitz points out that by trying to capture the spirit of "Negro melodies" in the symphony, Dvorak "was not actually copying them any more than he copied Czech folk tunes. Remember that the fake spiritual 'Goin' Home' came from the symphony, not the other way around."
As for Dvorak's concertos, Mr. Hurwitz suggests that because Dvorak was not a virtuoso performer himself, he tended to "treat the orchestra and the soloist as equal participants in a joint endeavor." While arguing that the violin and piano concertos deserve a wider audience, Mr. Hurwitz reserves his highest praise for Dvorak's famous
Cello Concerto. He believes that, along with the "New World" Symphony, the "American" Quartet, the String Quintet Op. 97, and the Humoresques, for piano, the Cello Concerto shares "a melodic inspiration clearly drawn from Negro spirituals and American popular song, while always sounding inimitably Slavic and totally like Dvorak."
For the general reader who wants to gain a new appreciation of the amazing output of this versatile composer who spent three of his most creative years in America, Mr. Hurwitz's book and its accompanying CDs are highly recommended.
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