Biblical Songs, Op. 99, B185
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
5 March - 26 March 1894
Premiere - date and place
(?) No. 6: 26 September 1895, Mlada Boleslav
(?) No. 6: O. Schellerova + ?
Simrock, 1895, Berlin
The Book of Psalms
Parts / movements
1. Darkness and thunderclouds are round about Him (Oblak a mrakota...)
2. Lord my shield, my refuge and hope (Skryse ma a paveza má Ty jsi)
3. Hear, oh hear my prayer, Lord (Slys, o Boze! Slys modlitbu mou)
4. Oh, my shepherd is the Lord (Hospodin jest muj pastyr)
5. Songs of gladness will I sing Thee (Boze! Boze! Pisen novou)
6. Hear, oh Lord, my bitter cry (Slys, o Boze, volani me)
7. By the shore of the river Babylon (Pri rekach babylonskych)
8. Oh, Lord, have mercy and turn Thou Thy face to me (Popatriz na mne...)
9. My eyes will I to the hills lift up (Pozdvihuji oci svych k horam)
10. Oh, sing unto the Lord a joyful song (Zpivejte Hospodinu pisen novou)
approx. 24 min.
Biblical Songs is a cycle of ten songs for alto with piano accompaniment written to the words of David’s Book of Psalms. The cycle is not only considered the culmination of Dvorak’s song oeuvre, but also one of the most important opuses in the genre itself. This is a work of great spiritual depth, in which the composer speaks to God of his anxieties, trust and joy. It is also the most fundamental expression of Dvorak’s humble faith in God, without any trace of ceremonial pathos. The songs are deliberately divested of all signs of flamboyance and are enchanting for their absolute simplicity, humility and sincerity, as they are for their pure musical invention. After his previous major sacred works – particularly Stabat mater and Requiem – with Biblical Songs, Dvorak attained an even higher level of intimacy, coupled with the minimal use of musical devices. The songs all share a rare intensity of emotion and exceptional melodic beauty. At the same time, however, whilst maintaining its stylistic cohesion, the whole cycle conceals within it an unusual diversity of expression: from moments of painful anxiety, then tranquil meditation, to the joy of human existence. The compositional techniques Dvorak uses are also manifold, from a simple recitative evoking quiet prayer, to an arching cantilena. The piano part is wholly unadorned, restricted merely to an elemental harmonic and rhythmical base and, in places, simple imitative passages.
Typically, Dvorak decided not to use the traditional language of sacred works for the musical setting of his chosen Psalms, namely Latin, but instead the time-honoured Czech translation from his own copy of the Kralice Bible. In using his mother tongue, he was able to achieve a more immediate and more natural testimony. Dvorak studied the Psalms and was clearly well acquainted with them, which comes through in a cycle of songs which betray complete unity of both literary content and musical expression. Dvorak also succeeded in attaining a superb declamation of the Czech text, which had been slated in the past by certain critics reviewing some of his previous vocal works. He only made minor revisions to the text where he felt it necessary to introduce a sense of logic to the music and expression.
|SONG||PSALM AND VERSE NUMBER|
|1. Darkness and thunderclouds are round about Him||psalm 97, verse 2 - 6|
|2. Lord my shield, my refuge and hope||psalm 119, verse 114, 115, 117, 120|
|3. Hear, oh hear my prayer, Lord||psalm 55, verse 2 - 3, 5 - 9|
|4. Oh, my shepherd is the Lord||psalm 23, verse 1 - 4|
|5. Songs of gladness will I sing Thee||psalm 144, verse 9 and psalm 145, verse 2, 3, 5, 6|
|6. Hear, oh Lord, my bitter cry||psalm 61, verse 2, 4, 5 and psalm 63, verse 2, 5 a 6|
|7. By the shore of the river Babylon||psalm 137, verse 1 - 5|
|8. Oh, Lord, have mercy and turn Thou Thy face to me||psalm 25, verse 16 - 18, 20|
|9. My eyes will I to the hills lift up||psalm 121, verse 1 - 4|
|10. Oh, sing unto the Lord a joyful song||psalm 96, verse 12 and psalm 98, verse 1, 4, 7, 8|
Biblical Songs was written in the space of three weeks in March 1894, while the composer was in New York. There was no external motivation involved, nor was it the product of a commission. The work was the result of a crisis point in Dvorak’s life, however, we have no actual proof of the specific reason for his state of mind at the time (the composer was famous for his ability to mask his emotions). The solemn and profoundly intimate character of the work is all the more surprising given that he began writing the songs at the highest point in his career, not quite three months after the premiere of his New World Symphony, hitherto his greatest (and never surpassed) triumph as a composer. Books on Dvorak usually state that the composition of Biblical Songs was prompted by news from Europe of the death of people who had meant a lot to him: his father Frantisek, composers Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Charles Gounod, and conductor Hans von Bulow. Frantisek Dvorak, however, in fact died on 28 March, two days after the work was completed, and surviving correspondence does not indicate that the composer even knew his father was dying. Tchaikovsky had died on 6 November of the previous year, and Gounod (who couldn’t be included among Dvorak’s circle of friends) died as early as 10 October (1893). Hans von Bulow did pass away just before Dvorak embarked upon Biblical Songs, on 12 February 1894, yet no record exists to suggest his response to this event. There may well be a simple explanation for Dvorak’s disposition at the time: he had now spent his second year on the American continent and, amid the noise and bustle of the big city, he may have started to feel lonely and nostalgic for his native country. The fact that the work appeared shortly before the Easter holidays may also have played a role.
publication of the work and its subsequent versions
The original piano version was first published in Czech by Simrock in 1895 with English and German translations. The songs meant a great deal to Dvorak and thus he also negotiated with his publisher regarding suitable translations which would best correspond with the vocal line. In January 1895 the composer arranged the piano parts of the first five songs for orchestra as well. The manuscript was later lost and was only rediscovered and published in 1914, also by Simrock. The second set of five songs was orchestrated in 1914 by conductor Vilem Zemanek, and later again by composers Jarmil Burghauser and Jan Hanus, to be included in a publication of a collected critical edition of the composer’s works in 1955. Biblical Songs exists in many other arrangements as well (not Dvorak’s): for soprano or tenor, with organ accompaniment, in a choral arrangement etc.
premiere and reception
It is not known where and when the entire original version with piano accompaniment was performed for the first time. The first five songs orchestrated by Dvorak were premiered in Prague on 4 January 1896 by baritone Frantisek Sir, engaged at the National Theatre, and the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by the composer. Soon afterwards, on 19 March, Dvorak conducted a performance of these same songs in London’s Queen’s Hall, where the soloist was Katharine Fisk. Immediately after they were written, Biblical Songs were recognised as one of the finest examples in the international song repertoire and, despite their solemnity and the fact that they lack displays of vocal virtuosity, together they endure as one of Dvorak’s most popular works.
soprano Eva Urbanova:
“Even if Dvorak had only written Biblical Songs and nothing else, it wouldn’t have mattered. Whenever I get the chance to sing them, I feel like I’m in heaven.”