In Nature’s Realm, op. 91, B. 168

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            Dvořák is the preëminent Czech composer of the nineteenth century, and perhaps of all of his successors, as well.   This is no small achievement, considering the number of great musicians--Mozart, for example—who thought of Bohemia as the most musical country in Europe.  Even today, one can hardly get on a streetcar in Prague without stepping around a double bass.  If Americans think of Czech music at all, today, other than two works by Smetana, it is of the music of Dvořák. They know little of the other composers of the incredible musical wealth of Bohemia—including Fibich, Ostrčil, Janáček, Foerster, Hába, and Martinů—just to name a few.  Dvořák is merely “first among equals” in the history of Czech music, and many more of the compositions of “the conservatory of Europe” need to reach our own concert stages. Dvořák owed his initial recognition to Johannes Brahms, who encountered his music somewhat early in Dvořák’s career, and saw to it that he was enabled to spend time in Vienna for further study.  While Dvořák’s fundamental stylistic orientation is similar to the older composer in its classical restraint and dedication to traditional forms and procedures, his compositions are unmistakably Czech in myriad subtle ways.  Turns of harmony, melody, and rhythm firmly establish Dvořák’s ethnicity, even within the disciplined tradition of musical composition leading back to, say, Beethoven.  Like Brahms, Dvořák wrote stunningly well in the genres of the string quartet, the sonata, and the symphony.  But unlike Brahms, he also wrote tone poems, and was an active and successful opera composer, although only his Rusalka is widely known in this country.  He was interested in almost every genre, and few of his contemporaries composed successfully in as many different ones as did Dvořák.

            He clearly thought of himself as a champion of Czech music, and he incorporated significant Czech musical, literary, and historical elements into his works.   His Slavonic Rhapsodies, tone poems, symphonies, operas, and songs—the list goes on and on—all are heavily infused with Czech melodies, linguistic inflections and characteristic rhythms, and national legends and stories.   And it must be admitted that these essential elements of his artistic voice are near the core of his attractiveness to audiences worldwide—not just in his homeland.  

            By the 1880s he had achieved widespread recognition as an important composer, with especial success in England, where he made many triumphal visits during that decade.  The story of his removal to New York City in 1892 to head a distinguished conservatory of music, and the subsequent composition of the “New World Symphony” is familiar to most.  But, in the year before he left Prague, he composed a trilogy of what may be called concert overtures, or even modest tone poems.  Conceived with the working title of “Nature, Life, and Love,” they collectively were conscious depictions by the composer of the three essential experiences of life—at least of his life.  He soon rethought that approach, and entitled them as the separate compositions that we know of today, In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello.  They are almost never performed together now; Carnival is the most popular (the “carnival” being the panoply of life, having nothing to do with a fair).  And of course, the complications of love in the play, Othello, are well known.  An essential element of Dvořák’s being was his love and reverence of nature, in all its diversity.  It sustained him, and surfaced in so many nuanced ways in his art.  When he finally achieved a degree of financial success, he purchased a rural property, Vysoká, where the quiet beauties of nature informed his music, and to which he retreated with alacrity for the rest of his life.  He commented frequently on its deep importance to him.

            In Nature’s Realm is a perfect reflection of his adoration of Vysoká and the renowned natural beauty of Bohemia.  A bucolic and pastoral cheerfulness pervades the whole composition, and to a large degree, informs the other two overtures, as well.  In the first work, after the initial murmuring in the lower strings at the beginning, the important “nature theme” is prominent, and one will hear it constantly in varying guises throughout.  Moreover, it is woven into all three components of the “trilogy.”  An element of it that almost anyone can recognize are the first two notes, which constitute the most common musical interval in Western culture:  every children’s playground, cuckoos and other birds, doorbells, even the chant, “air ball,” at basketball games echoes that ubiquitous interval—it’s simply . . .  natural.  Further developing the idea of nature, a second theme soon appears that outlines an old Czech hymn, “Let Us Sing Joyfully, Praise God the Father.”  It seems to reinforce the composer’s documented view of God and Nature as one.  Other bubbling, pleasant themes come alone, as Dvořák builds the movement in a subtle arch form.  It ends just as it began, with a gentle murmuring sustaining the, by now familiar, nature theme.  If one would look deeply into Dvořák’s work for existential clues, there are few so direct and pleasant places to begin as this charming work.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan