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the water goblin

COMPOSED 6 January - 11 February 1896
public rehearsal: 3 June 1896, Prague
formal premiere: 14 November 1896, London
public rehearsal: Prague Conservatory Orchestra, conductor Antonin Bennewitz
formal premiere: conductor Henry J. Wood
FIRST EDITION Simrock, 1896, Berlin
MAIN KEY B minor
INSTRUMENTATION 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns,
2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba (2nd tuba ad libitum), timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, bell, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
DURATION approx. 20 min.

composition history

The four symphonic poems set to themes from Karel Jaromir Erben’s collection of ballads Bouquet were written in 1896 and herald the final period of the composer’s career. The decision to set this material to music was not a momentary impulse but the outcome of Dvorak’s long-standing interest in this iconic work of Czech poetry. The composer would have become acquainted with Erben’s poetry in 1871 at the latest, when he wrote a musical setting of the poem “The Orphan’s Bed”, the most extensive of his song compositions (The Orphan). Ten years later came the cycle of ten Legends for four-hand piano (later arranged for orchestra as well), whose individual parts are untitled. The British musicologist Gerald Abraham, however, discovered – and it is not entirely clear whether this wasn’t, in fact, a remarkable coincidence – that some of the Legends’ musical themes faithfully evoked Erben’s verse, a principle Dvorak would apply once again fifteen years later in connection with the composition of the symphonic poems. Moreover, in 1884, the ballad “The Spectre’s Bride” became the inspiration for Dvorak’s full-length cantata for solos, choir and orchestra. 

sketch for the symphonic poem
Dvorak had entertained ideas to write further settings to Erben’s poetry much earlier than they actually appeared in manuscript form. Before his departure for the United States he was considering a musical setting for “The Golden Spinning Wheel”, not in the form of a symphonic poem, but as a cantata. He even noted down specific musical motifs in his sketchbook during his time in America, but he ultimately didn’t use them. Later on, during his summer holidays in Spillville in 1893, he contemplated writing a setting for the poem “Zahor’s Bed”. It seems that he was very taken with the idea, since he writes in a letter to his friend Emil Kozanek: “I’m really fired up now! I’m planning to delve into – Zahor’s bed!! If I can manage it as Erben did, it will be alright!” This objective was probably also the subject of Dvorak’s letter to Alfred Littleton from November of that year, in which the composer, regarding a request from the Cardiff music festival for a new cantata, speaks of “a very good subject from Erben, the author of ‘The Spectre’s Bride’”. However, the work never materialised. These persistent thoughts of Erben’s Bouquet crystallised at the beginning of 1896 into a plan to write musical settings to several of his ballads in the form of symphonic poems. From this poetry collection Dvorak chose the ballads “The Water Goblin”, “The Noon Witch”, “The Golden Spinning Wheel” and “The Wild Dove”. He had evidently intended to select more ballads, particularly since the first three poems appeared at practically the same time, their sketches labelled “first series”; moreover, an article appeared in the magazine Dalibor, according to which, “in addition to these lengthy compositions, the Maestro also intends to swathe several of Erben’s shorter poems in a musical mantle.” Why Dvorak ultimately decided not to write settings for further poems remains a mystery. The first three symphonic poems came out in 1896, published by Simrock (with The Wild Dove following in 1899); a year later they were awarded first prize by the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts. It is clear from Dvorak’s correspondence how important it was for him that the symphonic poems received a positive reception, and that he wished to stress the origin of his inspiration. When the works were in the process of being published, Dvorak wrote to his publisher Simrock: “Dear Mr Simrock! Please answer me this: Why is the following sentence omitted?: ‘The poetic subject matter underlying the enclosed work was taken from the collection of Czech poems Blumenstrauss, in Czech Kytice, by K. J. Erben’ etc. It is present in the Czech text, so why does it not appear in German and English? Over here everyone recognises and knows that the poet is Erben. All the more reason that it must also appear in the German text.”

sketch for the symphonic poem

general characteristics

The impact of Dvorak’s musical setting of Erben’s ballads lies in his total understanding of the highly original atmosphere and rhythmical qualities of their verse, and in his identification with their underlying moral principles, for whose violation Erben’s heroes must pay dearly. While, in the case of the song The Orphan and the cantata The Spectre’s Bride, Erben’s verse are an integral part of the composition, in the case of the symphonic poems, Dvorak had to proceed for the first time without the direct support of the text. Perhaps it was this circumstance that led the composer to come up with an unusual solution: he constructed a major part of the thematic material on the rhythmical base of Erben’s verse, thus it was possible to ascribe a number of passages in the score directly to the text that inspired them. This solution cannot be regarded as an act of necessity on Dvorak’s part, since there is no question of the composer’s fertile musical invention. On the contrary, he demonstrates a unique, original approach which lies well outside the context of the kind of programme music written by his contemporaries.

The second distinguishing feature of Dvorak’s symphonic poems is their focus on details. While the common conception of the symphonic poem is centred on its fundamental mood, the outline of its story or a general idea, Dvorak takes a magnifying glass to Erben’s text. Certain interpretations will claim that this approach interferes with the form, which becomes fragmented, given the disproportionate attention to detail, and the piece as a whole suffers as a result. This concerns, in particular, The Golden Spinning Wheel, in which Dvorak even has three repetitions of the same plot fragment (the exchange of individual parts of the spinning wheel for the dead girl’s hands, feet and eyes), which finds its justification in the story, but is superfluous from a purely musical point of view. The reverse is true of the symphonic poem The Wild Dove which, thanks to its use of a single motif for all the (often highly contrastive) moods in the story, gives the impression of being the most compact of the entire tetralogy.

The third important point regarding Dvorak’s musical setting is his precise characterisation of the moods of individual points in the plot, from the tragic and dramatic, to the scene of the wedding festivities. Apart from his well chosen motivic fabric, their overall impact is heightened by the composer’s masterful instrumentation. The sounds he creates in certain parts of the score are truly breathtaking, particularly in view of the fact that he effectively uses a traditional orchestral roster, complemented only with the subtle use of the harp, bells or triangle. In the instrumentation of his orchestral works, Dvorak had thus far essentially worked within the Beethovenesque-Brahmsian tradition; however, for his symphonic poems, he chose to enhance his orchestral palette with shades of French Impressionism.

formal structure

The symphonic poem The Water Goblin is built around the scheme of a free rondo. Its main section (A) is associated with the figure of the Water Goblin and his characteristic motif, constructed around the verse “Glow, moon, glow / That my thread may sew”. The secondary sections (B and C) describe the scenes with the mother, daughter and child. The thematic substance for segment B is derived from the verse “Early in the morning the maiden rose, she bound her linen in a knot / Mother, I will go down to the lake to wash my clothes”; segment C is based, among others, on the verse “Cheerless and woeful is this watery realm”, and the Water Goblin’s irritable reply “What are you singing, wife? I’ll have none of your singing!”. The composition may be schematically represented in the following way:

A (the Water Goblin above the lake) - B (the mother tries to dissuade her daughter from going to the lake) - A (the Water Goblin pulls the girl below the surface of the water) - C (beneath the waters the girl sings to her child and yearns for home) - A (the Water Goblin permits the girl to visit her mother) - B (the daughter returns to her mother; their fear of what the evening might bring) - A (the Water Goblin’s revenge) - coda (epilogue)

While Erben’s ballad ends with the murder of the child, Dvorak adds a quasi epilogue which heightens the tragic atmosphere with the suggestive monotone repetition of the Water Goblin’s motif and the final B minor chord in the deep registers of the bassoon, trombone and tuba.


premiere and subsequent performances

The first performance of the symphonic poem The Water Goblin was held at Dvorak’s request at a private concert given at the Rudolfinum by the Prague Conservatoire Orchestra on 3 June 1896, conducted by Antonin Bennewitz (the programme also included The Noon Witch and The Golden Spinning Wheel). The public premiere took place in London on 14 November 1896 under conductor Henry J. Wood. Shortly afterwards, on 22 November, conductor Hans Richter performed the work in Vienna, and later Josef Kompit in Brno on 11 April 1897. The Water Goblin was performed publicly in Prague for the first time on 24 April 1897, when the Czech Philharmonic was conducted by Adolf Cech.



Dvorak was perceived by his contemporaries (and, in a certain sense, this also applies today) chiefly as an author of absolute music, as a guardian of the “old orders” which determined the classification of musical forms as defined over the course of the 19th century. Yet the established notion of Dvorak as a composer who worked exclusively with absolute musical forms is not fully justified. Despite the fact that the symphonies, string quartets and other cyclical musical forms make up the majority of the composer’s instrumental oeuvre, his musical legacy has given us a number of works which defy this categorisation. Long before writing the symphonic poems he created several works which clearly reflect programmatic initiatives – in particular, the little performed Rhapsody in A minor from 1874 and the concert overture written one year earlier, Romeo and Juliet (unfortunately no longer in existence). These were followed in 1878 by the three Slavonic Rhapsodies which may not be directly inspired by subjects unrelated to music yet, in their form, title and expression, they betray a clear tendency towards programmatic ideas. During his “Slavic period” Dvorak produced his dramatic Hussite Overture (1883), in which he employed two themes (whose simultaneous use within a single work was later frequently criticised as ideologically misguided): the Hussite hymn “Ye Who Are Warriors of God” and the St Wenceslas Chorale. The beginning of the 1890s then gave rise to a set of three concert overtures, In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello, whose unifying idea is nature in all its guises. These long-term tendencies ultimately culminated in Dvorak’s decision to compose an entire cycle of symphonic poems to themes contained in Erben’s Bouquet.

Dvorak’s “sudden” move towards programme music did not go unnoticed in the artistic circles of the day, and it generated a considerable measure of surprise. Even at the time the composer was still working on the first three parts of his tetralogy of symphonic poems, the first short articles began appearing in the press – de facto reports describing Dvorak’s intention to write an entire cycle based on Erben’s motifs: “Maestro Dr. Ant. Dvorak is working on a cycle of new orchestral works going by the title Orchestral Ballades. These are poetic images, perhaps akin to symphonic poems, which musically illustrate our enchantingly beautiful national ballads from Erben’s Bouquet.” The first response to the completed works was an article by Karel Knittl in Dalibor, penned immediately after the private premiere. Knittl describes the “feverish anticipation” of Dvorak’s new opuses, which saw the composer entering the territory of the Neo-Romantics. It was only in his later article for an anthology published by the artists’ association Umelecka beseda that Knittl suggested the appeal of the Neo-Romanticism of Liszt and Wagner was nothing new for Dvorak: “During his early career Dvorak was truly fascinated by the Neo-Romantic movement. [...] This circumstance alone sheds light on the natural course of his compositional development: he has in essence returned to the ideals from which he emerged.”

Soon after the premieres in Prague and London, the first two symphonic poems were also presented in Vienna. The reactions to Dvorak’s new works were contradictory to say the least. Seemingly, at a time when the Czechs were striving for national emancipation (endeavours which culminated in the Badeni Language Decree), the choice of themes taken from Czech national literature was not fully understood. Also at issue here was the fact that Dvorak had a number of supporters in German-speaking regions who shared the opinions of Brahms and Hanslick, and who relied upon him as an advocate of traditional forms, and his ostensibly sudden switch towards programme music was unacceptable to them. Hanslick himself was particularly vocal on this issue, in the name of formalistic aesthetics unable to conceal his surprise that Dvorak had “forsaken” all his hitherto efforts: “I am an appreciative audience where Dvorak’s music is concerned, perhaps I perceive its appeal all too keenly yet, even so, I could not remain silent regarding the dangers of this latest tendency. Dvorak has no cause to go begging before literary texts (and what literature this is!), that they might bolster his composition. His rich musical invention needs no loans, crutches or instruction. [...] It is with a strange passion that Dvorak now indulges in ugly, unnatural and ghastly stories which correspond so little to his amiable character and to the true musician that he is. In The Water Goblin we are given a fiend who cuts off his own child’s head and throws it to its disconsolate mother; in the Noon Witch it is the woman-spectre in whose arms an innocent child breathes its last.”

Leos Janacek’s articles in the journal Hlidka made a significant contribution to period reflections on this part of Dvorak’s oeuvre. Janacek avoided any form of commentary on the subject of programme music and focused instead on the music itself, and its expression. In contrast to the position adopted by Eduard Hanslick, he applauded the composer’s inspiration from specific lines of verse, a sentiment that was probably closely allied with Janacek’s own fascination with “speech melodies”; at the time of Dvorak’s premieres he was studying the pitch contours and inflections of normal speech in preparation for his work on the opera Jenufa. The realism of the musical language Dvorak created in his symphonic poems thus found great favour with Janacek, who wrote: “In all the orchestral symphonic poems that I have known, the “direct speech” of the instruments, if I might describe it thus, has never sounded with such certainty, clarity and truthfulness within the wave of melodies, as it does in The Water Goblin.” 


On a moonlit night, a water goblin sits by the lake, sewing his coat and shoes in preparation for his wedding. The following morning a girl sets out for the lake, even though her mother has warned her not to get too close to the water – she says that she had a bad dream during the night, which augured only misfortune. But the girl goes to the water’s edge all the same; she stoops over the surface of the lake, the waves suddenly rise up, and the water goblin pulls her down with him deep below the surface. In the underwater realm the girl remembers the human world and her only solace is the child she has had with the water goblin. She asks him if he will let her return to dry land, if only for a brief moment, to pay a visit to her mother. After much persuasion, the water goblin finally agrees, but he has two conditions: She may only stay away for one day, and must return to the lake before the evening bell tolls. In addition, she must set out for the shore on her own; the child must stay behind. When evening comes, and it is time to return to the lake, the mother won’t give up her daughter to the Water Goblin, and they lock themselves in the cottage. After nightfall the water goblin appears in the yard. He tells the girl three times that it is time to go back to the lake, but her mother will not let her go. Suddenly a storm whips up and, to the sound of thunder, the water goblin returns with the child. In front of the door to the cottage he tears off its head and tosses it onto the threshold.

page of the score