Slavic Music in the Romantic Era

Moving away from Germany/Austria, consistently a hotbed for classical-style composition, we will look today at a few examples of music from another musically fascinating part of Europe. In central Europe, Czech-speaking composers Bedřich Smetana, Antonin Dvořák and Leoš Janáček among others, capitalized on folk melodies in their compositions, as well as setting vocal compositions in their native language. Their contribution to the arts is immensely significant not only in their homeland but around the world.

Slavic-inspired music has several unique qualities that set it apart from music in rest of Europe. You will hear an unusual, “spoken” quality to melodies and rhythms. Even wordless melodies seem to be taken from folk songs that have words, and those words are not in a cadence typical to a Germanic or Romance language speaker. Harmonies are usually rich, expressive and colorful. Many pitches outside of the designated key are used. As we discuss Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček in chronological order, notice how these elements evolve through time.

Smetana: Ma Vlast (My Homeland)

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) was educated in music under the influence of the great programmatic composers like Liszt and Wagner who were using music to tell grand, sweeping tales. The concept of the tone poem, literally a story told in music, was fashionable, having been used by Berlioz who we discussed in regards to his Fantastic Symphony. Smetana was also living during a time of rallying for Slavic pride and heritage in his native region of Bohemia (Central, Slavic Europe). Therefore, he combined his interest in the tone poem with his pride for his homeland and made this composition, Ma Vlast.

It has six individual parts, and they all represent some aspect of Bohemia, be it a landmark, a river, a folk tale, a peasant dance, etc. The most famous is the second part, The Moldau. The idea is that the listener is traveling down the Moldau River, depicted vividly by the strings and winds at the beginning, and the listener passes a variety of scenery on their ride including a mysterious old castle, an enchanted forest and a peasant wedding celebration.

The entire work is very beautiful and worth listening to the entire way through! Its movements depict the following scenes; see if you can visualize them as they go by.

  • Vyšehrad (The High Castle)
  • Vltava (The Moldau River, using Slavic folk melodies)
  • Šárka (a folk tale)
  • Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, a depiction of the countryside)
  • Tábor (A city in Bohemia. The theme is based on a Hymn tune)
  • Blaník (A Mountain. Legend says that a great army sleeps here, ready to awaken during the country’s greatest hour of need)

Antonin Dvořák: Folk Song Around the World

Antonin Dvořák is one of the most timelessly popular composers. Many of the most famous melodies in pop culture, film and individual performance are folk melodies that he set to harmony. While he may not be able to take complete credit for the melodies, he was a great orchestrator (assigning certain sounds to certain instruments to create a desired atmosphere) had an ear for harmony, and wrote interesting, idiosyncratic rhythms that imitate speech. There are several works to mention for Dvořák, so I’ve chosen just a few favorites.

Rulsalka, Song to the Mooon

You may not realize that you know this melody until you hear it. It’s performed on its own often in concert, used in movies, and has found its way into the ear of many a person without them perhaps even being aware.

This song is in fact an aria (vocal solo) from Dvořák’s opera, Rusalka. This opera tells a Slavic folk tale not unlike The Little Mermaid; a water spirit (called a rusalka) falls in love with a human prince and implores a witch to turn her into a human to be with him. This song is from the beginning of the opera, when Rusalka has seen the prince from afar and fallen in love with him. She begs the moon, which shines over them both, to bless their love and allow them to be together. She makes her vow to become human whatever the cost.

This song, as well as the rest of the opera, is sung in Czech, which is not a usual language for an opera singer to know. Singers must train to be able to sing in Czech in order to perform this opera as it was intended. The language adds an interesting element to the singing and the story, and makes the rhythms that Dvořák so often uses in instrumental parts make more sense to my ear.

Symphony number 9, “From the New World”

Perhaps Dvořák’s most famous composition, the New World Symphony is a product of Dvořák’s time in the United States. Dvořák worked for several years as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, and during this time he became deeply interested in Native American music and African American music. Dvořák had an African American student there who sang folk melodies to him. Dvořák got many of his ideas for the New World Symphony from a combination of his scholarly research on Native American music and these Afro-American songs. Here is a quote from Dvořák about his studies of folk music in the United States:

I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.

Antonin Dvořák

In addition to the beautiful melodies which you may already know very well, see if you can follow the craftsmanship too: The first and last movements are in a clear sonata form, the second movement is in ternary (ABA) form plus a mini-scherzo, and the third movement is a proper scherzo in ABA form (Review of form here). Dvořák manages to keep to the satisfaction of good craftsmanship while making all of his thematic material singable and highly emotional.

More Dvořák: String Quaret no. 14 in A Flat

One of Dvořák’s many beautiful string quartets. Not the most famous (no. 12, “American”), this one has all the fabulous melodies, colorful accompaniment and rhythmic excitement of no. 12 but, I think, is even better!

String Quartet no. 14 in A Flat

Leoš Janáček: A Style All His Own

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) was, as a person, probably insane, but as a composer this sentiment made him unique and incredibly interesting. An individualist for the sake of it, he was known as a stubborn and unhesitatingly critical student, colleague and teacher. His love live was scandalous and, with obsessive one-sided pursuits of “muses,” perhaps bordering on the illegal by today’s standards. He worked tirelessly as a musicologist, composer, teacher, leader of several educational institutions, and under still more job titles all at once. His hyper-energetic and unpredictable disposition shows very clearly in his music.

This music a fascinating middle ground between romantic era sentiment and 20th century modernism. Chronologically, that is exactly where Janáček’s life falls. As you listen to his works, take note of how odd they sound, yet how they still relate to the works of Dvořák and Smetana, and the Slavic folk tradition that Janacek spent his life obsessively researching.

In The Mists: Suite for Piano

This four-movement work for solo piano is a microcosm of essential “Janáček” style. It has brooding, dark moments of repose with unexpected interjections of boisterous, almost insane activity. Regardless of whether it’s a slow or fast fast movement, whether the sentiment is jolly, melancholy or manic, his music seems to have a split personality.

In The Mists is unique just in its format; all four of its movements are a similar format and all of them are, essentially, slow movements. Somehow Janáček still manages to get contrast between the four, which in itself is impressive.

The first movement, Andante, presents two starkly contrasting characters that switch between one another with little warning. The A theme is chromatic, difficult to sing, and somehow still very beautiful. It cascades into emotional outpouring, a highly active and manic B theme, made more wild by repeated, rhythmic arpeggios. You will hear lots of this effect in Janáček’s music. This B theme melts back into the A theme to round out the ABA form.

The second movement, Andante, also begins with a more sombre section. This melody sounds more like a call with no response; it doesn’t fit nicely into the 4-or 8-bar phrases that we are used to hearing. Perhaps this is due to Janáček’s quirkiness, but it could also be a folk melody with a Slavic language cadence. This strange melody is cut off by a mysterious, atmospheric sound that says not all is well. This transitions slowly into another wild section of activity, but it’s very brief. The lopsided A theme and the atmospheric noise return to round out the ABA form again.

The third movement, Andantino, is a similar format to the previous two. Its A melody, clearly based on a folk tune, is gorgeous and the most singable of the four movements. It also is oddly cut off before it seems to be over, as if lost in thought, and it never concludes “properly” to my ear. The B section of this movement is the most related to its A section; instead of new material, it just restates the A melody in a much different mood. I absolutely love the third movement for this unity of the two sections, as well as the ending of the movement, which capitalizes on the A melody’s trailing-off quality.

The fourth movement is marked “presto,” meaning very fast, but it’s only fast by comparison to the other movements and the faster-moving notes are within a suspended, slow-moving harmonic progression. Somehow Janáček makes this feel like both a fast and a slow movement at the same time. The A theme is not very melodic at all, jumping intervals and very difficult to sing. Janacek presents it at the beginning of the movement as the right hand’s cadenza-like melody. He then develops it by playing it very slowly in the left hand, the bass line, at the high point of the movement. He ends the movement by a restatement of the opening.

If you would like to hear more Janáček, I would recommend also listening to his Sinfonietta for orchestra. It follows a similar trajectory to In The Mists, so you will be prepared for the Sinfonietta if you enjoyed In The Mists.

1 thought on “Slavic Music in the Romantic Era

  1. […] written by Brahms or the Schumanns, and the cadence of some of the phrases is, similar to with the Slavic composers from last week, shorter or longer than I expect. Some melodies are quite folk-like and even […]


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