Othello, Op. 93, B174
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
10 December 1891 - 18 January 1892
Premiere - date and place
28 April 1892, Prague
National Theatre Orchestra, conductor Antonin Dvorak
Simrock, 1894, Berlin
A major / F sharp 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, harp, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
approx. 15 min.
composition history and general characteristics
In the spring of 1891 Dvorak 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 Dvorak’s oeuvre, which was not – and is probably still not – considered typically Dvorakian, 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 Dvorak’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. Dvorak 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 Dvorak’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. Dvorak’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
Unlike the other parts of the trilogy, the Othello overture – perhaps for its associations with a specific work of literature – moves away somewhat from the traditional idea of sonata form. This also applies to the overall atmosphere of the piece which is of a more epic character, with various sudden mood swings and a tangible sense of drama. While one cannot describe the work as a faithful musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, its individual parts do betray certain parallels. The section that corresponds to the exposition is given over to Iago and his intrigues, which sow the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind, reflected in the arresting theme, usually described as the “motif of jealousy” (in terms of the musical structure, we might call this the main theme). The extended lyrical episode in the exposition could be regarded as the love duet between Othello and Desdemona. The striking, dramatic development, constructed upon a complex harmonic base and treating curiously distorted variants of the initial thematic material, represents the scene of Othello’s jealousy culminating in the murder of Desdemona. At this point Dvorak remarkably introduces the four-note leitmotif from his Requiem. The recapitulation is likely an image of remorse, sorrow and heart-rending memories of a happiness long gone. The rousing, spectacular coda may be viewed as the outcome of the entire tragedy – the scene of Othello’s suicide. That Dvorak closely associated the idea of destructive love with the forces of nature is borne out by the frequent use of the nature motif from the first part of the trilogy. However, the motif is not used in its original idyllic form, but is instead severely distorted in such a way that, in certain places, it is the voice of caution; elsewhere in this piece, nature’s call is oppressive and disheartening. After the now lost overture Romeo and Juliet, Othello is the second (and last) instance where Dvorak sought inspiration in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
premiere and publication
The premiere of all three overtures took place in Prague’s Rudolfinum on 28 April 1892, with Dvorak 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.
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. Dvorak 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 Pribram 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. Dvorak’s overtures, superbly executed and interpreted as the Maestro intended, made a truly profound impression on us all.”
reaction of Eduard Hanslick to the performance in Vienna (Neue Freie Presse, 5. 2. 1895):
“Dvorak’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 Dvorak’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 Dvorak 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. Dvorak, 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, Dvorak 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 Dvorak’s overture In Nature’s Realm which also features in his other overtures (Carnival and Othello). This means that Dvorak 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.”