Antonín Dvořák ‘In Nature’s Realm’: Bohemian Luminosity

Classical music fans – welcome (or welcome back!) to my October Alphabet Challenge. This challenge is great for a number of reasons, with one of them being able to look into composers I really enjoy the music of. Today’s offering for Day ‘D’, is exploring Antonín Dvořák’s concert overture, In Nature’s Realm. An exciting late-Romantic work, which I am certain you will all enjoy!

Antonín Dvořák was born in 1841 in a town called Nelahozeves, which is near Prague, Czech Republic. Dvořák was the first child of fourteen, although many of these children did not live past infancy (with eight surviving). During his upbringing, Dvořák was surrounded by Christian faith and Bohemian heritage, which is something that resonated within his music. When starting infant school in 1847, Dvořák began learning the violin, and even at this tender young age, showed a real talent and skill for music. After getting his head around music theory and violin performance, Dvořák composed his first work in 1855, which was a polka dance in C major. Assuming that he wanted to be fully immersed in classical music, Dvořák was also tutored in German language, which aided his studies. Further to violin, the young composer also began learning organ and piano from his German language teacher, Anton Liehmann.

After leaving to move to Prague in 1857, Dvořák  entered the city’s prestigious Organ School, where he studied organ performance with Joseph Foerster (Josef Bhuslav Foerster’s brother). Throughout his music education, Dvořák was always heavily involved in music bands and orchestras, which gave him ways to communicate with other musicians, as well as further his own technique. Dvořák furthered his own musical career by setting up ensembles and composing a range of different works, including string quartets/quintets, orchestral works such as symphonies and concert overtures, and chamber music.

Many of Dvořák’s works were directly inspired by Moravian, Czech and Slavic traditions. With many composers around this time, Dvořák took much inspiration from folk dance forms, such as the Polish mazurka and polonaise and the Ukrainian dumka. The most obvious of his works that resonate these themes is his sixteen Slavonic Dances, which propelled him into fame. It has been said that Dvořák’s style was based on classical models, and that he admired past composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Due to this, many of his works abide by classical models (for instance the four-movement symphony in a particular order). However, Dvořák played a key role in the development of the symphonic poem. Today, Dvořák is largely remembered for his symphonies (in particular the ninth – From the New World), as well his other orchestral works, such as In Nature’s Realm and Slavonic Dances. As previously mentioned, Dvořák was a ‘jack of all trades’, and his large collection of works proves this.

During the last few years of his life, Dvořák moved back to Prague, after travelling the world, and subsequently died on 1st May, 1904. The five weeks before his passing, Dvořák had begun an abundance of new compositions, and sadly these were left unfinished. In Nature’s Realm, was composed in the later part of Dvořák’s life, in 1891, and is part of a concert overture trilogy. Referred to as “Nature, Life and Love”, this set of three overtures each outline one of these themes. Quite obviously In Nature’s Realm is referring to the first part “Nature.” The other two parts of this trilogy are the Carnival Overture (“Life”) and Othello (“Love”).

In Nature’s Realm was composed between March 31st and July 8th 1891, and the first performance was given the following April in Prague. The trio is connected by themes that represent nature, and to begin with they were going to be published together, until Dvořák changed his mind at the last minute. In Nature’s Realm has been described as a landscape painting, due to its richness in tone, colour and timbre throughout. It is also seen as a somewhat self-portrait of Dvořák’s home town, Vysoká, where he composed in a forest with peace and quiet, and the only noises that disturbed him were the natural sounds outside his window.

In terms of structure, In Nature’s Realm, is broadly in sonata form and begins with an evocative, soft introduction from the basses. The nature motif, in its simplest form, is then sounded by the strings, with woodwinds, such as the flute and oboe, reflecting some sort of bird-song above. These ‘voices of nature’, as they can be described, are representative of the whole work, and then within the other two concert overtures. The main theme, heard slightly later on, is resonant of Moravian yodelling, and this is exhibited with the theme being passed through different instruments and registers. The work uses the call and response technique many times, which emphasises just how important and central the theme of nature really is.

The development section has different atmosphere from the previous light and carefree sections. Again, the nature motif takes centre stage, however it is now layered over complex harmonies and very clever contrapuntal lines, which reflects Dvořák’s homage to J. S. Bach. The recapitulation is similar to the opening, however there is a growth in intensity, which resolves into a much more tranquil coda section. The work can thus be seen as a circle, with it starting and ending the same way. In Nature’s Realm is not often in concert programmes today, however, this does not detract from its beauty, sonority and rich musical writing. The work resembles a microcosm of nature, and its wonders are unlocked upon listening to this wonderfully serene work.

I have waited a while to share with you a work by Dvořák, and I am now very happy this has happened. To me, a composer who is celebrated for only a few works, when actually his catalogue of music is not only large, but full of musical gems such as In Nature’s Realm. Join me tomorrow for Day ‘E’ of my October Alphabet Challenge – you won’t want to miss this one!

Happy Reading!

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