“Song to the Moon” from Rusalka

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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. Americans today, if they think of Czech music at all, 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 string quartets, sonatas, and symphonies.  But unlike Brahms, he also wrote tone poems, and was an active and successful opera composer, composing eleven works for the stage.  Opera was a central focus of Dvořák, and he saw it as the primary means of expressing nationalist musical aspirations.  Cherished by the Czechs, his operas find only rare performances outside of the Czech Republic—that is, with the exception of his beloved Rusalka, performed frequently, all over the world.

            The ninth opera of Dvořák, it was composed in 1901, and is based upon a familiar story from many cultures—the hopeless love between a human and a young woman from a different physical world.  Everyone is familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, ubiquitous in American culture today.  There are many other variants as well, including Ondine (made into a Broadway play in 1954, starring a young Audrey Hepburn).  

            In Dvořák’s opera, the title character, Rusalka, is a water sprite, or nymph,

who lives in a woodland lake.  Her father, the water goblin, Vodnik, reigns over the lake, and she tells him of her love for a human prince who frequents the forest.  

As in all the versions of the story, she wants to become human and become his lover.  Naturally, as a father, he futilely tries to dissuade her, but directs her to a witch who may help the transformation.  The witch can effect that end, but, of course, there are fatal complications.   Failing to gain the love of the prince will result in his death and her eternal damnation.  So, with the stakes high, she pours out her ardor and hopes in the universally admired aria, “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém” (Song to the Moon).

--Wm. E. Runyan  

 ©2023 William E. Runyan