Two More Worthy Works of Smetana and Dvorak

I do not anticipate having time in class to discuss Smetana’s Trio in g minor or Dvorak’s late folk/fairy tale opera “The Devil and Kate” but I’d like to recommend these fine pieces to my class, and of course my general readership as well.

The Smetana trio is one of a distinguished number of works that is an instrumental requiem; the Berg violin concerto being perhaps the best known exemplar of this category of works. In the case of the Smetana trio, the requiem is for his daughter Bedriska. The work also appears to be intended as therapy for Smetana himself. G minor is a special key for Smetana; consider his early sonata for piano and the later “From Bohemia’s Woods and Valleys”.  Effective but not particularly uncommon is the yoking of scherzo and slow movement in the middle movement. Striking is the similarity of some of the music in the second subject area of the first movement to the beginning of Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben“… but please let me point out the relevant words in the finale of that great cycle: “Now for the first time you have given me pain… [by dying]”…and in the Schumann the theme comes back as an epilogue. Am I saying this is not merely co-incidental?

I ain’t sayin’, I’m jus’ sayin’.

Piano Trios
Naxos

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Smetana knew and loved Schumann’s music, by the way. There is a great deal of Schumannesque rhetoric in the piece. Uncanny in Smetana generally is that when he writes in reasonably conventional instrumental forms, it sounds fresh and new, as if he just invented the forms. Also, the mastery of the idiom is striking. All three parts are given music of considerable weight, complexity, lyricism and drama. And it is delightful to see a piano part that doesn’t look like accompaniment textures, but like a fully realized soloistic role, and the strings aren’t compromised by this, they are enhanced. The turn to the major at the end is not convincing, and not intended to be. It is not an affirmation that life goes one, but a try-out to see if life can go on. The works ends in an emotionally speculative vein, if I can put it thus. The famous Kuebler-Ross stages of death are very apparent in this often desperately sad, sometimes violent work.

Special note to a certain somebody: What the heck is wrong with Chamisso’s poetry for Schumann’s Frauenliebe? I reread all eight poems and found them moving. In both English and German, just for you. I ain’t afraid to be a weepy sentimentalist. But then, I like the prose styles of Franz Liszt and George Sand! 

Dvorak’s “Devil and Kate” is just like Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy tale operas, especially “May Night”, but with the exception that the characters come to life in Dvorak; they’re human. Especially human are the devils Marbuel, the gatekeeper and Lucifer. Rimsky struggled bringing his characters to life. A significant flaw in his operas, but I think the only flaw. Rimsky is one of my heroes. In fact, I only have three portraits of composers in my workroom, Liszt, Wagner, and Rimsky. I did have Franz Lehar, but the cat ate it.  Kate herself is a delight-a pretty plump chatterbox who gives the devils what for. The agreeable strains of various dance styles permeate this delightful score, the orchestration is sumptuous, the lyricism is fresh and eloquent, and it’s under 2 hours long. The Supraphon recording from 1993 is a winner. You should hear this piece, it’ll put a smile on your face.

Supraphon

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