Classical Music Commentary: Poetic Narratives in the Concert Hall, and a New Recording of Dvořák’s “The Spectre’s Bride”

By Ralph P. Locke

A reflection on the whole tradition of combining longish narrative poems to music, especially for performance in a concert hall by large forces (e.g., singers and orchestra).

Antonín Dvořák: Svatební košile (The Spectre’s Bride), cantata, Op. 69. Simona Šaturová (The Girl), Pavol Breslik (Ghost of the Dead Man), Adam Plachetka (Narrator). Austrian Radio Symphony (ORF Vienna) and Vienna Singakademie Chorus, conducted by Cornelius Meister  (Capriccio C5315—78 minutes)

I recently got to know a major work by Dvořák, The Spectre’s Bride, for the first time, thanks to a marvelous new recording made in Vienna (but sung in the original Czech), under the direction of Cornelius Meister. The work fascinated me as an example of how effectively a poetic narrative can be combined with music of the highest artistry. I’ll describe the work and recording in a moment. But first I would like to reflect a bit on the whole tradition of combining longish narrative poems to music, especially for performance in a concert hall by large forces (e.g., singers and orchestra). In particular, I’d like to suggest that this tradition has much to offer us, despite the fact that it tends not to be well represented anymore in our concert halls.

Poetry and Music, Writ Large

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a profusion of works that attempted to “musicalize” important epic poems and the like. And that did so without costumes, sets, or onstage action. A “concert work” of this sort (to adopt the usual phrase) can move quickly from scene to scene, can suggest magical and supernatural actions that would have been difficult to introduce in a staged work at the time, and can introduce “characters” (e.g., an angel, or the spirit of a dead person) that, until recently, would have been considered embarrassing or even sacrilegious to represent visually on a public stage. The concert setting also lends itself to third-person narration and description, a mainstay of much narrative poetry, whereas opera audiences tend to regard a narrator as an awkward intrusion that shatters the theatrical illusion (the “reality effect”).

In the English-speaking world, one of the most frequently performed works of this sort was, for many years, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898), by the English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. (Not to be confused with the poet in whose honor he was reportedly named.) Coleridge-Taylor’s father was a physician from Sierra Leone; thus Coleridge-Taylor was and remains one of the most prominent composers of African descent to have written works within what is known as Western classical (or art) music. His Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, which requires a tenor soloist in addition to chorus and orchestra, has been recorded twice (each time with a major tenor) and continues to be performed in places as far away as Australia (at the Armidale Music Foundation’s Annual Choral and Orchestral Weekend in March 2018).

Many broad-scaled works based on lengthy poems (or using extended excerpts from lengthy poems and epics) are for soloists and/or chorus and orchestra, and some of these also incorporate spoken narration. A small number of carefully wrought works employ a narrator and a piano rather than orchestra, yet manage to maintain a certain grandeur of style and scope. An example of the latter—narrator-and-piano format—is Richard Strauss’s lengthy Enoch Arden, to a famous text by Tennyson. The work has been recorded numerous times, sometimes by singers (such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jon Vickers, and Brigitte Fassbaender) and other times by actors (such as Michael York and Patrick Stewart).

Recent recordings have made available some long-forgotten but fascinating pieces that combine poetic narratives with all of the elements just mentioned (except piano): that is, spoken recitation, solo arias, movements for chorus, and orchestral accompaniment (or even sometimes movements for orchestra alone). Two of these works are by Félicien David (1810-76), a French composer hailed and encouraged by Berlioz. Le désert (1844) tells the tale, in colorful verse, of an Arab caravan moving through a vast desert. Its 2014 recording, the first fully adequate one, was granted the “Repertoire Rediscovery” award from the prestigious Académie Charles Cros (an organization devoted to the art of recorded music). More recently, David’s Christophe Colomb (1847) got its world-premiere recording (for which the score and performing parts had to be reconstructed by a German musicologist, aided by a team of, believe it or not, students at the high school at which he teaches!). It proved to be particularly engaging in its portrayal of the Caribbean island that Columbus and his sailors reached at the end of their trouble-filled ocean voyage and the island’s peaceable inhabitants (click here for the section beginning at 1 hour and 1 minute in the complete recording, currently available on YouTube).

Another work of this sort, likewise including spoken recitation, is Widma (Phantoms, 1865), by the Polish opera composer Stanisław Moniuszko. Again, this is not a theater work: the whole thing was meant to be sung, and spoken, in a concert setting, without costumes, sets, or physical action (blocking). As I indicated in my review in The Arts Fuse, I was enchanted with the work’s recent first recording, not least because of the vivid declamation of the spoken verses. It helped that the conductor or record company selected experienced professional actors for that purpose, though of course singers (quite good ones) take over for the sung portions. Let me tell you, Polish actors know how to be darkly ironical. I’m not sure I’ve quite recovered from listening to this creepy recording! (A trailer is available on YouTube for a recent Polish production that incorporated powerful interpretive dancing and costuming.)

Works without Spoken Declamation

Most such works, though do not involve spoken recitation. Brahms’s Rinaldo, for example, probably his longest vocal work with orchestra other than his German Requiem, requires only a tenor soloist, male chorus, and orchestra. It tells the long-famous story, from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, of the Carolingian knight Rinaldo (known in other versions of the tale as Renaud or Renault) and his seduction by the Saracen (i.e., Muslim) enchantress Armida (Armide). (I notice online that it got performed in Budapest in February 2018. I wonder what the most recent performance was in a major American city. Here is a marvelous performance of Rinaldo’s opening aria, by Jonas Kaufmann, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado.)

Robert Schumann wrote several important cantatas (or whatever one wants to call them) of this sort, most famously Das Paradies und die Peri (Paradise and the Peri), based on a poetic tale from the wildly popular book Lalla-Rookh by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. I was privileged to hear Paradies conducted by Carlo-Maria Giulini years ago, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. There have been numerous recordings, by such conductors as Giulini (“live” in Rome, 1974), Armin Jordan (an award-winning issue), Giuseppe Sinopoli, Gerd Albrecht, Simon Rattle, and, using period instruments, John Eliot Gardiner. But the chances of hearing it in a concert hall during your lifetime are slim indeed.

Other major examples include Berlioz’s “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette (after, of course, Shakespeare), Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (using excerpts from a long poem by John Henry Newman, about the thoughts of a dying man and the travels of his Soul after death), and Rachmaninoff’s The Bells (after Edgar Allan Poe). Of this group, Berlioz’s work is the best known, though largely through recordings, such as two fine ones by the Boston Symphony, under, respectively, Charles Munch and Seiji Ozawa. (Here is Leonard Bernstein explaining the “Balcony Scene” during a rehearsal with an orchestra of young players.) Big-boned poetic dramas don’t always captivate a concert audience nowadays the way they demonstrably did a century or more ago. But music lovers listening at home can take their time and enter into the imaginative world of such a work, creating in their—our!—minds the necessary visual “illustrations” of what we are hearing.

Dvořák’s Amazing Spectre: The Work

What led me to start thinking about this whole tradition of big works using poetry was the wondrous new recording of Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride (or The Specter’s Bride, to use American spelling). Easily fitting onto a single CD, Bride consists of over an hour of tuneful, moody, propulsive, gorgeously orchestrated vocal music. Like the Schumann and Brahms works, it could be called a cantata, though I might be tempted to dub it a short secular oratorio, not least because the choral part is so extensive, and because the whole thing tells a coherent story. Call it what you will, it is a major work by a great composer, and deserves to be heard more often, especially if as well performed as it is on its latest recording.

The Spectre’s Bride was commissioned for performance in Birmingham, England, got performed there in 1885 with massive forces (400 choristers and a 150-piece orchestra), and was soon published by the renowned English firm of Novello, in an inept translation done from a German version and not fitting the music very well. It was much performed in England and apparently elsewhere, then fell out of favor, except presumably in the Czech-speaking lands.

Dvořák’s work uses a poem, by the Czech poet K. J. Erben (1811-70), whose title translates as “The Wedding Shirts”: that is, garments stitched by the bride-to-be for herself and her groom (presumably as part of the dowry for their future wedding). The original translators may have considered the title insufficiently evocative, and altered it to The Spectre’s Bride (or, in German, Die Geisterbraut). A later Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinů, wrote a ballet score with the same title and presumably on the same topic.

The poem has many of the characteristics typical of a stylized nineteenth-century version of a folk ballad. (Lovers of British folk music know various grisly ballads, such as “Lord Randall” and “The Twa Corbies.”) Erben’s poem, in a tone of pseudo-folklike directness, enacts (to the ear, not the eye) a troubling tale through solo and duet singing plus third-person (sung) narration. A ritualistic aspect is suggested by the device of varied repetition (the demon lover tears three sacred objects from the young woman’s hands, he pounds on the door three separate times, and so on) and by the woman’s recurrent invoking of the Virgin Mary.

Dvořák assigned each of the basic “personas” in the poem to a singer: a soprano for the bride, a tenor for the risen ghost of her dead lover, and a baritone for the narrator. The chorus comes in frequently to reinforce and expand upon what the narrator has sung, or to add commentary.

This work was part of Dvořák’s attempt at shifting from a Brahmsian compositional approach to one that was somewhat closer to that of such self-styled progressives as Liszt and Wagner. Other works in this direction include his later operas and his four symphonic poems on Czech folk legends, such as The Golden Spinning Wheel. Those four symphonic poems are likewise based on ballad-poems by Erben, though of course they convey the story by purely instrumental means. (What Erben’s ballad texts meant for Dvořák is intriguingly explored in James Parakilas’s book Ballad without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade.)

There are several prominent recurring motives, which are at times sung, at times played by the orchestra. Much as in a symphonic poem, the motives often get transformed rhythmically and harmonically and are sometimes reassigned to different instruments or orchestral groupings. The soprano is given two lovely arias, either of which would stand well on a recital album in place of the wonderful but perhaps overly familiar “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka. The tenor sings mostly in duet with the soprano or baritone and is by turns insinuating and threatening. As for the baritone, in the climactic scene (no. 16), he not only sings about the next events in the story but gets to voice the demonic lover’s demands and the woman’s pleas to God. Perhaps Dvořák was trying to maintain a ballad-like sense of distance from the events at this point of greatest urgency, lest the work become totally operatic. If so, he failed! The work, as a whole, is quite dramatic—perhaps more so, at times, than are some of Dvořák’s own operas.

The Recorded Performance

The performance is first-rate. The three singers are all either Czech or Slovak, which surely helps them communicate the text. Best is the most widely known of the three: tenor Pavlo Breslik. The soprano and baritone have a slow vibrato that is somewhat distracting, though it is narrow enough not to become a wobble. The baritone sounds happiest when singing light and high. (The Met heard him as Guglielmo in Così fan tutte during the 2017-18 season.) He is quite effective, but the part would come across as more weighty and dark if taken by a singer with more resonant low notes.

Tenor Pavlo Breslik. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Viennese chorus sounds very fine to my Czech-ignorant ears, and the whole is delightfully buoyed up by alert playing and conducting, in sound as fine and naturally balanced as one would expect from a performance—in front of a very quiet audience—in the renowned Vienna Konzerthaus (presumably in the renowned Grosser Saal) and recorded by the Austrian Radio. (To be precise, the recording blends two performances that occurred on 2-3 June 2016.)

The booklet contains a helpful essay in German and English. The sung text is given in Czech and English, the latter being a singing translation that is reasonably clear in meaning and fits the music well. The booklet-essay is misleading on two points. No “torn shirt from the lover” is found in the graveyard at the end of the tale; rather, what can be seen are the tatters of the shirts that the young woman had stitched in anticipation of the wedding that never came. And the translation claims that the frantic nighttime chase on which the woman is led by her lover’s ghost, is “vividly termed a ‘mad rush’.” The author of the essay meant to say (as one can see in the German original) that this chase scene is portrayed by the composer in the manner of a supernatural “wild hunt,” a quasi-programmatic type of supernatural musical scene familiar from the “Ride to the Abyss” near the end of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and from Franck’s great symphonic poem Le chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman).

Aside from my quibbles about the booklet, Capriccio and conductor Meister have a real winner here. Anybody who is fond of Dvořák’s symphonies will be delighted to get to know this fiancée and her spectral lover (and, for that matter, the fascinatingly complex singing role of the narrator/bard). Record reviewers in the past have recommended notable CD recordings of this work that are conducted by Krombholc (now on YouTube) and Bělohlávek and steered listeners away from recordings conducted by Albrecht and Tiboris. The Bělohlávek was, like the present CD, recorded before a well-behaved audience. (Bělohlávek, the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, died in 2017 at age 71.) There is also a 2002 CD by the New Jersey Symphony and Westminster Choir under Zdeněk Mácal. Presumably New Jersey concertgoers were lucky to encounter the work in the concert hall back then!

I suspect that the recording under review and the much-admired Bělohlávek are the best choices at the moment for someone wishing to purchase a recording of this beautiful and astounding work. Bělohlávek’s recording is currently available in a bargain-priced 8-CD Supraphon set of choral and sacred works by Dvořák, but there no printed text is given to help you understand what is going on. And all those events, descriptions, and outcries matter!

And, if you find that Dvořák’s Spectre speaks to you, there are, as I said earlier, numerous other concert works that similarly combine long poetic texts with superb music. And a lot of them are plenty dramatic, despite (or perhaps even because of) being free of sets, costumes, choreography, and the like.

[The present article incorporates, in its second half, a lightly revised version of a record review that first appeared in American Record Guide and is used here by kind permission.]

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book.


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  2. […] to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Arts Fuse (where a shorter version of this article first appeared). His articles have appeared in major […]

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