Hussite Overture (Husitská), Op. 67, B132
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
9 August - 9 September 1883
Premiere - date and place
18 November 1883, Prague
National Theatre Orchestra, conductor Moric Anger
Simrock, 1884, Berlin
C major / C minor
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp (ad libitum), violins, violas, cellos, double basses
approx. 13 min.
Dvorak wrote this work in the summer of 1883 at the request of the Committee for the Completion of the Prague National Theatre. The composition was originally intended as a musical introduction to a planned trilogy set in the Hussite era, written by the director of the National Theatre, Frantisek Adolf Subert. The latter, however, did not realise this objective and so the Hussite Overture was performed for the first time at a gala concert held on the day the theatre was reopened to the public on 18 November 1883. Dvorak regarded this commission from the National Theatre as a task of honour, which is evident from the fact that he cancelled his planned visit to see his closest friend Alois Gobl at Sychrov castle in order to devote himself to his writing. Dvorak worked on the Hussite Overture at his summer residence in Vysoka near Pribram; it took him exactly one month, from 9 August to 9 September.
underlying ideas and musical content
The form of the work was originally to have corresponded to Subert’s planned trilogy: “The rise of the Hussite movement, the struggles of the Hussites and, after the wars, reconciliation”. However, Dvorak had in mind a somewhat broader framework. While he essentially maintains the proposed outline, he characterises Hussitism not only through the realistic depiction of battle, but also as the victory of heroic ideas. During his time, Dvorak naturally did not yet perceive Hussitism as a historical period of contradictions and questionable ethical codes. The approach to the work as pure music also reflects this. It consists of three main themes, of which two are deliberately taken from universally familiar melodies: the Hussite hymn “Ye Who Are Warriors of God”, and the St Wenceslas Chorale. His use of both these melodies together led to subsequent criticism that he was ideologically mistaken; today this view is regarded as outdated. All the more, then, do we appreciate the work’s extraordinary music for its own sake.
From a formal point of view the composition might be characterised as a sonata-form movement with a slow introduction. The solemn opening bars most likely represent the dawn of the Hussite movement, the exposition and development describe the Hussite wars, and the recapitulation and coda are a noble apotheosis celebrating the final victory of Hussite ideals. The thematic treatment reflects Dvorak’s exceptional musical imagery, from which the composer builds the individual passages and artfully combines the various motifs in order to achieve maximum impact. The exquisite instrumentation is a triumph in itself – one of the greatest accomplishments of Dvorak’s entire oeuvre. Music critic Eduard Hanslick noted after the Viennese premiere that the music “is so fanatical that, in places, it seems to have been orchestrated using scythes, flails and maces”. Yet Dvorak achieves these devastating sound effects (Hussite battles) while essentially still employing a classical orchestral roster.
premiere and subsequent performances
Dvorak’s Hussite Overture was one of the composer’s most performed works during his lifetime. This interest was probably also fired by its non-musical subject matter, rather than by its worth as pure music. The work was premiered on 18 November 1883 during a gala concert to mark the reopening of the National Theatre and it was played once more the very next day before the start of the evening performance. In both cases the National Theatre Orchestra was conducted by Moric Anger. Dvorak conducted the work himself six times: in London on 20 March 1884, in Berlin on 21 November 1884, in Prague on 3 April 1887, in Frankfurt on 7 November 1890, in New York on 6 April 1893, and in Worcester, USA, on 28 September 1893.