Czech composer Antonin Leopold Dvořák (1841-1904) had a difficult life. He was born into a butcher’s family, the first of fourteen children, of which only eight survived past infancy. His musical affinity manifested early, and he was learning violin in primary school at six, and later organ and piano as well.
Although he graduated second in class from Organ School (which he had joined in deference to the wish of his father, who gave his blessing to Antonin to pursue music as a life choice provided he train as an organist, a secure source of income), he tried without success to get the post of organist, but did not let setbacks deter him from a career in music. He was too poor to even afford concert tickets, but learnt a lot of repertoire, especially opera, by actually playing (viola) in orchestras.
Dvořák struggled as a composer well into his thirties, when the influential Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick was impressed by his compositions. He persuaded Dvořák to send some of his music to his close friend Johannes Brahms, who saw such merit in the scores that he recommended Dvořák to his own publisher Franz Simrock. Brahms also introduced Dvořák to others in his circle, including the violinist Joseph Joachim and the conductors Hans Richter and Has von Bülow. And so at last was launched the career of Dvořák as a composer.
Honours, titles, commissions and offers followed thick and fast. Dvořák was appointed professor of composition and instrumentation at Prague Conservatory in January 1891, and in June he was invited to take up a position in the United States. Jeanette Thurber was a Paris-trained musician and now a philanthropist in New York City and had founded the National Conservatory of Music there as she was passionate about raising music pedagogy to European standards. She persuaded Dvořák to accept the post of director, which he accepted, moving with his family to New York in September 1892. He would remain there until 1895.
Before he left, however, he embarked upon a triptych of concert overtures to which he originally gave a collective title “Nature, Life and Love”. But he later split them up both in title and opus number: In Nature’s Realm, Opus 91; Carnival Opus 92; and Othello, Opus 93. The intention was to attempt of offer impressions of what a human soul might experience, in both positive and negative aspects.
Dvořák seems to have given much thought to the title of the second concert overture in particular. In his preliminary sketches, he referred to it as “Life (Carnival)”, then “A Czech Carnival” before finally settling for simply “Carnival”.
Perhaps this should not be construed as a comment on the lives of university students, but Dvořák dedicated the Carnival overture to Prague’s university, which had conferred upon him an honorary degree a little earlier.
It is scored for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, harp and strings. Forces like these are meant to deliver a crash, boom, bang and a wallop.
Dvořák wrote the programme notes for the piece himself: “A wanderer reaches the city at nightfall, where a carnival of pleasure reigns supreme. On every side is heard the clangour of instruments, mingled with shouts of joy and the unrestrained hilarity of people giving vent to their feelings in the songs and dance tunes.”
However, the internet website www.antonin-dvorak.cz, “the most comprehensive body of information possible relating to the life and work of Antonin Dvořák”, takes the view that “the title of the middle part of the trilogy, Carnival, shouldn’t conjure up a sea of masks, but should instead evoke an image of the ‘carnival of life’”.
In any case, it’s a glorious work. The listener is thrown right into the action from the opening syncopated rhythmic motif, complete with ringing triangle and jangling tambourine. Think Slavonic Dances with party hats on, regardless of what anyone may say. And anyone who thinks playing a tambourine is dead easy will think again after they hear (or better still, watch) the Carnival overture. It is a virtuosic part. The long-suffering violins have impossible demands upon them right through, but that’s Dvořák (and Eastern European music in general) for you.
The central gentle passage was described by Dvořák as depicting “a pair of straying lovers” is introduced by woodwinds setting the scene for a lovely violin solo, certainly one of the most sublime passages in all music, an oasis of blissful calm, before we are yanked back rather rudely into the frenzy, building steadily towards a feverish climax.
What did Brahms think of it all? He wrote in a letter to publisher Simrock that he considered the work “merry”, and that “music directors will be thankful to you” for publishing it and the rest of the triptych.
Dvořák conducted all three overtures in a joint premiere in April 1892 in Prague, and when he arrived in the US, he included them in a concert programme at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic that October.
Hanslick wrote a largely favourable review in Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse after he heard it there in 1895, saying it “pulsates youthfully and urgently with life.”
It certainly does. You can watch on YouTube the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Jiří Bělohlávek perform the Carnival overture with panache at the Last Night of the Proms 2012 in the Royal Albert Hall London. One can only hope the tambourine player had a stiff drink in the pub later. She earned it. Life is a Carnival, and we are all invited.
(An edited version of this article was published on 7 February 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)