Patti Johnson Wilson Classics Series

Sensational: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7

Stefan Asbury, guest conductor
Robert Chen, violin

Bedřich Smetana – Dance of the Comedians from The Bartered Bride
Chen Gang and He Zhanhao – Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto
Antonín Dvořák – Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70

 Saturday, November 19, 2022 | 7:30 PM
Tulsa Performing Arts Center

Program Notes 

The three works on this program share an interesting characteristic in their desire to essentially embody the cultural identity of the composers’ origin. Both Bedřïch Smetana and Antonín Dvořák are familiar names to concert goers.  They are both native Bohemians, the term describing the people and culture today associated with the Czech people and language. The Butterfly Lovers Concerto of Chen and He is a more recent work that sought to bring the ancient traditions of Chinese opera to the modern concert hall.

Bedřïch Smetana (1824-1884) earned the status of cultural hero in his native Bohemia due to his efforts to create a musical style that fully embraced the manner and character of his homeland. His music is self-consciously focused on subjects that evoke a sense of Bohemian pride and identity. His most familiar works are his symphonic poem, Vltava (The Moldau), and his second opera, The Bartered Bride (1866). Both of these works are steeped in the sounds and atmosphere of Bohemia, primarily through the use of traditional folk dances of the region. The Bartered Bride is a national artistic object of pride for the Czech people because it was in this work that Smetana demonstrated the absolute musical value of his culture’s traditional music at a time when European musical culture was dominated by the Austro-Germanic tradition. In this opera Smetana takes a Bohemian story, sung in the Czech language, and suffused with the vibrant dance types of Bohemia. After an unsuccessful initial run, The Bartered Bride eventually became an international success, sealing the fortune of its creator and legitimizing Bohemian culture throughout Europe. While the folkish tale of nuptial intrigue and hidden identity is not unique to this opera, the language and the sparkling score set the stage for all future Czech composers, particularly Dvořák and Janáček.

The “Dance of the Comedians” is a characteristic example of the vibrant music from Smetana’s score. This number appears in the final act of the opera and accompanies a scene in which a circus has come to the town where the opera takes place. Smetana uses a folk dance type known as the skočná, a fast dance in duple meter, as the lively accompaniment to humorous actions of the circus performers.

Though not familiar to many audiences in the West, the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto (Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai) (1959) is one of the most popular works of classical music in the world. It is certainly well known in China where it is frequently performed and widely known. Coincidentally, the earliest version of the music that was to become the Butterfly Lovers Concerto was performed in China by the Czech ensemble, the Smetana String Quartet. Members of the quartet consulted with the composers to learn to execute the techniques incorporated into the writing style intended to mimic the sound of traditional Chinese instruments, such as the erhu and pipa. The Butterfly Lovers was created by two Chinese composers, He Zhanhao (b. 1933) and Chen Gang (b. 1935), students at the Shanghai Conservatory, with the intention of “nationalizing” the violin in China. To that end they created a work imbued in Chinese tradition, based on an ancient folktale that tells the story of ill-fated lovers that is a little bit Mulan and a lot Romeo and Juliet:

A girl (Zhu Yingtai) runs away from home disguises herself as a boy and attends school where she befriends Liang Shanbo. They study together for three years, and Zhu has fallen in love with Liang. She cannot reveal her identity but asks Liang to visit her home to marry her sister. Liang then discovers that there is no sister, Zhu is a woman, and has been promised, against her will, to another man by her father. Liang, heartbroken, soon dies. In grief, Zhu visits his grave and begs for it to open. Tremors and clap of thunder opens the grave and Zhu jumps in. Out of the grave two butterflies flutter away as the lovers are finally joined.

The concerto can be heard in three continuous sections each depicting different parts of the story. The first section deals with the friendship and affection of Zhu and Liang. Duets between solo violin and cello respectively depict their growing affection. The middle section expresses Zhu’s defiance of her father’s marriage arrangement, the sorrowful departure of Liang, and concludes with the percussive opening of the grave. The final section depicts the lovers’ transformation. The music blends Chinese and Western elements using European instruments and musical structures but colored by the violin adapted to the sounds of traditional Chinese string instruments. The composers also liberally employ the sound of the 5-note pentatonic scale, a scale type characteristic of Chinese music.

Antonín Dvořák (1840-1904) did not begin his career with the intention of exploiting his Bohemian musical background, but he found that the appeal of his music that incorporated folk melodies and dances was so great that he almost could not do otherwise. The novelty and charm of the characteristic tunes and dances of his native land afforded Dvořák a degree of fame that his extremely humble beginnings would never have foretold. One of the places where he achieved phenomenal popularity was in England, where he eventually visited and performed on nine separate occasions. Several of his most well-known works were composed for his English tours including his magnificent Symphony No. 7 in d minor, op. 70.

Although Dvořák composed a total of nine symphonies only five were published in his lifetime, those today known as Symphonies 5 through 9. Of these nine the last three are the most popular, No. 9 probably most of all, also known as the “New World Symphony” – written during his three-year stay in the United States. It is impossible to determine which of Dvořák’s symphonies is his finest, since even among the less famous six earlier works there are true masterpieces, but there are perhaps none that can surpass the Symphony No. 7 in its intensity, profundity, and sense of tragedy.

The symphony opens with a theme in the strings of unusual urgency that is sustained up to the second, more relaxed and gentle melody first heard in the clarinet. The opening idea returns to dominate the central development section and again begins the recapitulation but now in its imposingly orchestrated version, thus allowing for virtually no relaxation of the mood throughout the whole middle of the movement. A simple melody in the clarinet begins the slow movement which gradually builds in emotional intensity and expression ranging from sublime joy to profound despair.  The nationalist element is most apparent in the Scherzo – a symphonic version of the Czech dance known as the furiant characterized by a fast tempo, sharp accents and shifting duple and triple beat patterns. The Finale returns to the tragic mood of the opening through its inexorable and almost menacing rhythmic character. Energetic string passages punctuated by the brasses also heighten the mood of the movement. A brief, lighter second theme relieves the mood temporarily before darker emotions return and even the final turn to D major at the conclusion does not ultimately dispel all sense of trepidation. © 2022 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.