Gypsy Songs (also Gypsy Melodies), Op. 55, B104
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
18 January (?) - 23 February (?) 1880
Premiere - date and place
Nos. 1 and 3: 4 February 1881, Vienna
Nos. 1 and 3: Gustav Walter + ?
Simrock, 1880, Berlin
Author of the text
Parts / movements
1. My song sounds of love (Ma pisen zas mi laskou zni)
2. Hah, how my triangle ringing (Aj, kterak trojhranec muj)
3. The forest is quiet all around (A les je tichy kolem kol)
4. Songs my mother taught me (Kdyz mne stara matka)
5. The string is tuned (Struna naladena)
6. Wide sleeves (Siroke rukavy)
7. Give a hawk a cage (Dejte klec jestrabu)
approx. 14 min.
composition history and publication
Dvorak wrote Gypsy Songs (Gypsy Melodies) in early 1880 at the request of leading tenor at Vienna’s Hofoper Gustav Walter. Walter frequently presented Dvorak’s songs at his recitals and, in 1879, he asked the composer to write a new vocal work especially for him. To this end, Dvorak chose seven poems from the collection Poems by Adolf Heyduk. Dvorak wrote the songs for Walter in a German translation; the text was translated by Heyduk himself, in such a way that, in declamatory terms, the German version kept as close as possible to the Czech original. The work was published soon afterwards, in 1880, by Berlin-based publisher Simrock, but only with the German text, for which the composer was criticised in the Czech press. However, it wasn’t long before the same publisher brought the songs out in their Czech version as well, with an English translation by Natalie Macfarren. In contrast to Dvorak’s original score, two changes had been made for this publication. The first of these was requested by alto Amalie Joachim (wife of the celebrated violinist, Dvorak’s friend Joseph Joachim), who asked that the first song be extended: Dvorak added another stanza between the original two, set to words by the publisher’s consultant Robert Keller (probably again translated into Czech by Heyduk). Dvorak made a second adjustment in the third song by shifting two passages of text without affecting the lyrical melodic line. The first and third song were premiered by Gustav Walter in Vienna on 4 February 1884. The date and venue of the premiere of the entire cycle are not known.
Dvorak took his texts for the songs from the first part of the collection Poems by Adolf Heyduk (1835–1923), entitled Gypsy Melodies. Despite a negative response from the press, Gypsy Melodies became extremely popular among readers and was later published in several editions. Heyduk was encouraged to explore this theme after visiting his brother in Slovakia, and he was also influenced by the fashionable appeal at that time for romantically idealised gypsy motifs. The poems are grounded in folk verse, particularly Slovak, but also Czech poetry. They are characteristic for their fervent expression and emphasis on the bond between man and nature, on man’s elemental need for music, and on freedom as something to be valued above all else. The poems – and also Dvorak’s musical setting – are thus often interpreted as allegories of the endeavours to liberate the Czech nation from Habsburg repression.
characteristics of the musical setting
Gypsy Songs is a crowning achievement of Dvorak’s song oeuvre. Here the composer had forged a much more convincing connection between the vocal part and its piano accompaniment than in his previous song cycles, and had successfully overcome any obstacles relating to the declamatory aspects of the composition. The poems were selected and arranged to achieve greater contrast in a bright palette of moods, together creating a balanced concert cycle. Each song is conceived in such a way that its expression best characterises the original text. Dvorak’s melodies and harmonies do not attempt to imitate specific aspects of gypsy folklore; the stylisation of the songs instead focuses on the generic folkloric traits of the text. The piano part nevertheless betrays certain elements typical of the instrumental accompaniment of Slovak folk songs, principally the traditional sound of the cimbalom. From a formal perspective, the individual parts of the cycle are predominantly written as strophic songs with harmonic or melodic deviations where the stanzas are repeated, and with the addition of a short coda where appropriate.
The most popular in the cycle is the fourth song, “Songs my mother taught me”, with its wonderful melody and strong emotional impact. It comprises two stanzas, a prelude, interlude and postlude. The theme itself consists of two eight-bar periods (the second stanza features an extended closing section), with an unusual rhythmical structure: the vocal line is written in 2/4 time, while the piano accompaniment is in 6/8 time. “Songs my mother taught me” is one of the most frequently performed songs in the world concert repertoire and it exists in numerous vocal and instrumental arrangements.