In Nature's Realm, Op. 91, B168
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
31 March – 8 July 1891
Premiere - date and place
28 April 1892, Prague
National Theatre Orchestra, conductor Antonín Dvořák
Simrock, 1894, Berlin
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
approx. 14 min.
composition history and general characteristics
In the spring of 1891 Dvořák set about writing a cycle of three concert overtures which were originally known by their collective title, Nature, Life and Love. Later on, however, the composer decided to split them up, giving them each an independent opus number and title: In Nature’s Realm, Op. 91, Carnival, Op. 92 and Othello, Op. 93. Given that their subject matter lies outside musical contexts, they might be regarded as part of the programmatic line of Dvořák’s oeuvre, which was not – and is probably still not – considered typically Dvořákian, but which threads its way right through the composer’s musical career.
The overtures In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello represent three works sharing common ideas, whose unifying element could be said to be nature in all her forms: both a life-giving and destructive force. Given that Dvořák’s world view incorporated a sturdy vision of the natural sphere and its close connection with the notion of God, the concept “nature” in this case cannot be interpreted in a narrow sense, but rather in a pantheistic way. For instance, the title of the middle part of the trilogy, Carnival, shouldn’t conjure up a sea of masks, but should instead evoke an image of the “carnival of life”. With slight exaggeration, the cycle might be seen as a somewhat secular postscript to the composer’s recently completed Requiem (although it does not aspire to attain its intellectual depth) since, here as well, the composer seems to be contemplating the positive and negative aspects of life. In any case, the non-musical subject matter of these works is merely universal, and opinions differ on what specific meaning they might have. Dvořák himself did not clarify his position for his listeners in any way since, with the exception of a few isolated notes in the score and his correspondence, he did not offer any particular interpretation. Further variants of the titles of individual parts which appear in Dvořák’s sketchbooks might hold a clue: for his overture In Nature’s Realm the composer was also considering the titles In a Secluded Place, Ouvertura lyrica and Summer’s Night; the original title of Carnival was Life, with the word Carnival in brackets. Dvořák’s correspondence tells us that he was also considering for his overture Othello the names Tragic Overture and Eroica. In terms of musical structure, the consolidating element of the cycle might conceivably be termed the “nature motif”. This is the main theme of the overture In Nature’s Realm, and it also figures in both subsequent overtures.
formal structure and content
The overture In Nature’s Realm is written in broadly arching sonata form. It begins with an evocative, soft introduction above a sustained low-register F, above which we hear an embryonic form of the main theme (the “nature motif”), along with brief motifs in the flutes and oboes reminiscent of birdsong. The main theme exhibits a dispositional affinity with Moravian folk yodelling (“halekačka” – a melody called out across the valley), reflected in the various repetitions of the theme in different registers and instruments. This entire opening musical image presents a highly poetic stylisation of the voices of nature. The exposition doesn’t contain the usual two or three contrasting themes; instead we are given what might be termed individual thematic fields which always comprise several connected motifs. The exposition is built up towards the end, where the principal nature motif returns in the orchestral tutti. The development, in contrast to the exposition, is about half its length, but its mood is much more dramatic, drawing from a complex harmonic progression and intricate contrapuntal treatment. Here, the nature motif plays a dominant role. The recapitulation in rough outline repeats the thematic development of the exposition, but without the gradual sense of increasing intensity; the recapitulation and following coda instead introduce a mood of tranquility. The whole composition may thus be seen as a single, great symmetrical arc which returns at the close to the hushed, intimate atmosphere in which the work began.
premiere and publication
The premiere of all three overtures took place in Prague’s Rudolfinum on 28 April 1892, with Dvořák on the conductor’s rostrum. This was one of concerts of the composer’s “farewell” tour of Czech and Moravian cities before his departure for the United States. The works were not entered on the programme under their definitive titles, but as Nature, Life (Czech Carnival) and Love (Othello), grouped together under the single opus number 91. The overtures only acquired their own titles with individual opus numbers two years later when they were published by the Berlin-based firm Simrock. Dvořák dedicated the overture In Nature’s Realm to Cambridge University, which had presented him with an honorary degree shortly before.
period press reviews
review of the premiere in Dalibor magazine:
“At the very end of the evening the National Theatre Orchestra, supplemented by young members of the Conservatoire, conducted by the Maestro himself, performed a set of three overtures written by him, bearing the joint designation “Op. 91” and comprising the tableaux: “Nature” – “Life” – “Love”. […] “Nature” is a delightful tableau, imbued with the freshness of a spring idyll. With its clear pastoral tone, it manifests bright, intense instrumental tone colour; a structure of compact sublimity, full of superb details, is built up around an enchanting basic motif. Dvořák is a great admirer of nature and her splendour; one can only marvel at the way in which the impressions instilled in him by the enchanting serenity of the Příbram forests, are now swathed in the most exquisite musical fabric that a composer could hope to weave. “Life” […] opens with an audacious, densely orchestrated movement enhanced with dance-like rhythms. The orchestra employs its full arsenal of brass, cymbals, timpani and even – rara avis – timbrels [tambourines]. The third overture “Othello”, in my humble opinion, should have the second designation “love” removed from its title. […] Anyone who hears this overture would agree that its music corresponds more to the ideas contained in Shakespeare’s tragedy, than to the erotic impulses which should utterly prevail, if the subject of the composition were indeed “love”. The music opens with a chorale, whose apprehensive mood seems to herald a premonition of imminent dread. In the enchantingly beautiful melody, we recognise in a natural progression of ideas the figure of Desdemona and, in the corresponding theme of sombre tone and strange, faintly buffeted rhythms, the raging Othello. Of particular note is the close of the overture, portraying the woeful end of the drama with terrifying and almost tangible realism. Dvořák’s overtures, superbly executed and interpreted as the Maestro intended, made a truly profound impression on us all.”
Eduard Hanslick’s review of the performance in Vienna (Neue Freie Presse, 5. 2. 1895):
“Dvořák’s new concert overture In Nature’s Realm is a highly gratifying counterpart to his overture Carnival, which we heard recently. Both pieces pulsate youthfully and urgently with life. At one moment the music carries a mischievous carnival atmosphere, then it moves towards a calmer, joyful spring mood. Both, however, exult in the enchantment of beautiful sounds, in melodic vitality, spontaneity and naturalness. Both overtures have in common with Dvořák’s compositions their joyous atmosphere which, in these pessimistic days, invigorate us twofold. According to modern standards, we would probably not describe either overture as “momentous” – nor do they aspire to be, yet both are truthful and pleasing, a tonic after the plethora of new orchestral works which, aided by false contrasts and veiled Weltschmerz, pass themselves off as something profound and significant. Together with these two overtures Dvořák also published a third, entitled Othello, which might be described as a poetic recasting of Shakespeare’s tragedy, or an introduction to it. Some have voiced the opinion that this tragic overture is “more meaningful” than the two cheerful pieces. I think that the opposite is true. Dvořák, himself, features in the overtures Carnival and In Nature’s Realm yet, like Othello, he wears a mask which is instantly recognisable as Liszt, then Wagner. Here, Dvořák wanted to appear on this occasion as a tragic dramatist and, since devastating conflict, self-destruction and bloodshed are alien to his character, he sought refuge in an artistic portrayal. Somewhat surprisingly, one comes across a particular motif in Dvořák’s overture In Nature’s Realm which also features in his other overtures (Carnival and Othello). This means that Dvořák originally thought of all three overtures in some mutual context. This connection, in my view, is wholly inconceivable. It is good that the composer abandoned his original idea to present these three works, even outwardly, as mutually related compositions. They could never have had so strong an impact.”