A Hero's Song, Op. 111, B199
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
4 August – 25 October 1897
Premiere - date and place
4 December 1898, Wien
Wiener Philharmoniker, conductor Gustav Mahler
Simrock, 1899, Berlin
B flat minor
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
approx. 22 min.
The composition of A Hero’s Song in the summer of 1897 saw the composer continuing his recent foray into programme music. It would seem that the work was ignited by a surfeit of inventive resources within him, which is reflected in its autobiographical undertones and in the fact that Dvořák began working on the sketch, without a break, the very next day after completing his revision of the third act of his opera The Jacobin. While all four symphonic poems from the previous year were inspired by ballads from Erben’s Bouquet, on this occasion, Dvořák rejected any idea of a specific story or literary inspiration, and determined the entire intellectual concept of the composition himself. A Hero’s Song is not only the composer’s last symphonic poem, but also his last contribution to the purely instrumental genre since, for the remainder of his life, he devoted himself to opera and nothing else. A Hero’s Song took him almost three months to write, and he would work on it chiefly during his summer holiday traditionally spent at Vysoká u Příbramě, and later also while visiting Josef Hlávka at Lužany. He finished the work in Prague on 25 October. The original title, as noted down by Dvořák in the autograph score, was A Hero’s Life. One might note the coincidence that, at the same time, Richard Strauss was working on a piece of similar genre (symphonic poem) with the same title: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life). In his choice of title, Dvořák is said to have been inspired by his pupil at the Prague Conservatoire, Vítězslav Novák, when Dvořák played him the as yet unnamed work on the piano.
In the context of Dvořák’s oeuvre as a whole, A Hero’s Song has a special place given that, as one of the composer’s few works to do so, it manifests certain autobiographical traits, if only in outline. For Dvořák, whose output might generally be characterised in this regard as “objective”, an approach like this is quite unusual. Unlike some of his contemporaries, for whom the composition process often represented something akin to a diary entry, self-analysis or a fundamental philosophical confession, thus the result seems highly subjective (Tchaikovsky, Mahler), Dvořák was never drawn to a similar type of “soul-bearing”. All the more surprising, then, is that, in the case of A Hero’s Song, he even left behind a text characterising the work; written for music critic Robert Hirschfeld, who provided an analysis of the work for the printed programme published for the premiere. It appears that the generally formulated programme does, in fact, conceal the composer’s personal testimony. Dvořák’s objective was probably to describe in a highly stylised manner his own artistic pilgrimage through life and, through music, to declare his life attitude, typified by perseverance, determination and faith in his own abilities. Dvořák provided Hirschfeld with the following account:
“It is truly difficult for me to describe to you in a letter everything that was going through my mind during the writing of A Hero’s Song. I could express myself in many words, or just a few. First of all, I must state that the Czech title alone is difficult to translate. It is called ‘Píseň bohatýrská’ (adjective). ‘Bohatýr’ (noun) is essentially a specifically Slav expression. The Greeks called such heroes ‘rhapsodes’ [rhapsodists]. What naturally came to mind was more a kind of spiritual hero, an artist, and so I think that the hero would be suggested by the very first theme. It expresses energy, resolve and strength (Molto vivace). The second theme (Adagio, quasi marcia) in B flat minor introduces pain, lamentation etc.; D flat major indicates hope, solace etc. Then comes the first struggle. The E major passage in 2/4 time brings new joy and hope in a happier future; at the end come the storm and the final victory of the idea.”
Based on what the composer had described to him and presumably on the sheet music, Robert Hirschfeld wrote the following in his analysis of the work:
“In the composer’s own words, A Hero’s Song, rather than a war hero, should conjure up a type of Slav rhapsodist or bard. This symphonic poem, then, describes the fortunes and development, the ‘Sturm und Drang’ of the hero of the spirit, without the changing moods having to depict specific actions. The hero’s theme speaks of strength, energy and resolve. The second theme, the Adagio in B flat minor, is evocative for disappointment, pain and grief. With the passage in D flat major the hero finds solace and hope. And then the struggle once again, giving rise to a surge of new joy in life, new hope. The hero endeavours to attain his noble objectives. Finally the triumph; the victory of the great idea.”
For a poetic interpretation of the work, Dvořák approached notable Czech poet Julius Zeyer, probably with the intention of publishing the text in the programme for the Prague performance or in the printed edition of the score. While Zeyer complied with his request and submitted a text which corresponded to Dvořák’s vision, the composer in the end abandoned his original plan, perhaps due to the excessive pathos of Zeyer’s language.
text by Julius Zeyer:
“Fatigued by the formidable glare of his wondrous idea, the hero of the spirit sets out into the wide world to battle for his great objective. He proclaims his noble word. Yet icy disappointment pulls him down from his victorious flight, down from the blue canopy. His soul is stifled, and painful anguish emanates from his grieving innermost being. But his God-given strength will not let him fall. From his own sorrow a spring ray of hope surges forth and, stirred anew, he spreads his wings to take flight again, to battle again. And the joy of the struggle for the great ideal foments within him and casts him once more towards his lofty aims, there, shimmering in the distance. The hero flies up towards the sun-lit heights, borne on eagle’s wings. There, finally, he stands victorious, swathed in glory, in his pure greatness; he calls out his word, now exultant, from the very summit of that vast world, which he had set out to conquer with his own spirit.”
general characteristics and formal structure
A Hero’s Song is a symphonic poem constructed within the framework of the traditional four-movement symphony. The individual “movements” are not separate, however, but follow on from one another, creating a single current of music. The introductory part with its tempo Allegro con fuoco, representing a notional first movement, opens with a decisive theme full of energy and resolve in the violas, cellos and double basses, playing in unison. This is the work’s principal theme which undergoes countless transformations as it threads its way through the composition. The second part of the symphonic poem (Poco adagio lacrimoso), standing in for the slow movement, is stylised as a form of funeral march which escalates until it reaches an expression of monumental tragedy. As it progresses, the music becomes gradually brighter, giving rise to the third part (“scherzo”), typical for its dance-like, almost folkloric temperament. The closing section of the work, which might be otherwise described as the final movement of the symphonic cycle, intensifies in its expression of exultation as it moves towards the triumphant close. A Hero’s Song could be seen – in purely musical terms and in view of its position as the very last of the composer’s instrumental pieces – as a summary of Dvořák’s compositional mastery. The work is distinguished for its melodic diversity, sovereign thematic treatment, inventive polyphonic structure, and resourceful instrumentation.
premiere and subsequent performances
A Hero’s Song was premiered on 4 December 1898 by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Gustav Mahler. Dvořák attended not only the premiere, but also – at Mahler’s invitation – the preceding rehearsals. The atmosphere at these rehearsals was probably quite lively with enthusiasm, since Mahler informed Dvořák that he was “wholly delighted” with the composition. The work enjoyed considerable success both in the eyes of the public and the critics. A Hero’s Song was first performed in Prague by the Czech Philharmonic on 28 January 1899, with Oskar Nedbal conducting. That same year the work was also presented in London on 20 and 21 October, then in Hamburg, Berlin, Boston and Leipzig in November. Dvořák himself conducted his piece in Budapest on 20 December of that year. He wrote about this concert to his friend Alois Göbl, stating the following: “I was so delighted that both audience and critics in Budapest received me with such fervour. After the first item on the programme, A Hero’s Song, the applause went on for so long that I had to go and take a bow several times, and then they presented me with a huge wreath with Hungarian ribbons in their national colours.” In spite of its unquestionable qualities, and despite its huge success at the premiere, A Hero’s Song never became a regular item in the repertoire and, with only a few exceptions, it continues to be unjustly neglected by recording companies.
period press reviews
Eduard Hanslick (Neue Freie Presse, 6 December 1898):
“A Hero’s Song, inspired by true talent and created through technical mastery, will certainly triumph everywhere. Its success in Vienna reflects this prognosis. This extremely difficult work, superbly performed under Mahler, left a strong impression. The composer himself was in attendance and was called onto the concert platform by tempestuous applause; he had to step up repeatedly to take a bow for his successful endeavours.”
Hugo Riemann after the Berlin performance:
“The principal sections of the work are interlinked through symphonic transitions which are built upon the three main themes of the introduction, thus the piece overall prides itself in a rare unity of fundamental ideas, while its music assumes exceptional alternating forms of expression. At the same time, in my opinion, this is an example of an auspicious compromise between the classical symphonic form and its poetic-musical, formally uninhibited development into the symphonic poem as shaped by Liszt and his successors.”