The Golden Spinning Wheel (Zlatý kolovrat), Op. 109, B197
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
15 January - 25 April 1896
Premiere - date and place
public rehearsal: 3 June 1896, Prague
formal premiere: 26 October 1896, London
public rehearsal: Prague Conservatory Orchestra, conductor Antonin Bennewitz
formal premiere: conductor Hans Richter
Simrock, 1896, Berlin
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, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
approx. 26 min.
The four symphonic poems set to themes from Karel Jaromir Erben’s collection of ballads Bouquet were written in 1896 and herald the final period of the composer’s career. The decision to set this material to music was not a momentary impulse but the outcome of Dvorak’s long-standing interest in this iconic work of Czech poetry. The composer would have become acquainted with Erben’s poetry in 1871 at the latest, when he wrote a musical setting of the poem “The Orphan’s Bed”, the most extensive of his song compositions (The Orphan). Ten years later came the cycle of ten Legends for four-hand piano (later arranged for orchestra as well), whose individual parts are untitled. The British musicologist Gerald Abraham, however, discovered – and it is not entirely clear whether this wasn’t, in fact, a remarkable coincidence – that some of the Legends’ musical themes faithfully evoked Erben’s verse, a principle Dvorak would apply once again fifteen years later in connection with the composition of the symphonic poems. Moreover, in 1884, the ballad “The Spectre’s Bride” became the inspiration for Dvorak’s full-length cantat
a for solos, choir and orchestra.
Dvorak had entertained ideas to write further settings to Erben’s poetry much earlier than they actually appeared in manuscript form. Before his departure for the United States he was considering a musical setting for “The Golden Spinning Wheel”, not in the form of a symphonic poem, but as a cantata. He even noted down specific musical motifs in his sketchbook during his time in America, but he ultimately didn’t use them. Later on, during his summer holidays in Spillville in 1893, he contemplated writing a setting for the poem “Zahor’s Bed”. It seems that he was very taken with the idea, since he writes in a letter to his friend Emil Kozanek: “I’m really fired up now! I’m planning to delve into – Zahor’s bed!! If I can manage it as Erben did, it will be alright!” This objective was probably also the subject of Dvorak’s letter to Alfred Littleton from November of that year, in which the composer, regarding a request from the Cardiff music festival for a new cantata, speaks of “a very good subject from Erben, the author of ‘The Spectre’s Bride’”. However, the work never materialised. These persistent thoughts of Erben’s Bouquet crystallised at the beginning of 1896 into a plan to write musical settings to several of his ballads in the form of symphonic poems. From this poetry collection Dvorak chose the ballads “The Water Goblin”, “The Noon Witch”, “The Golden Spinning Wheel” and “The Wild Dove”. He had evidently intended to select more ballads, particularly since the first three poems appeared at practically the same time, their sketches labelled “first series”; moreover, an article appeared in the magazine Dalibor, according to which, “in addition to these lengthy compositions, the Maestro also intends to swathe several of Erben’s shorter poems in a musical mantle.” Why Dvorak ultimately decided not to write settings for further poems remains a mystery. The first three symphonic poems came out in 1896, published by Simrock (with The Wild Dove following in 1899); a year later they were awarded first prize by the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts. It is clear from Dvorak’s correspondence how important it was for him that the symphonic poems received a positive reception, and that he wished to stress the origin of his inspiration. When the works were in the process of being published, Dvorak wrote to his publisher Simrock: “Dear Mr Simrock! Please answer me this: Why is the following sentence omitted?: ‘The poetic subject matter underlying the enclosed work was taken from the collection of Czech poems Blumenstrauss, in Czech Kytice, by K. J. Erben’ etc. It is present in the Czech text, so why does it not appear in German and English? Over here everyone recognises and knows that the poet is Erben. All the more reason that it must also appear in the German text.”
The impact of Dvorak’s musical setting of Erben’s ballads lies in his total understanding of the highly original atmosphere and rhythmical qualities of their verse, and in his identification with their underlying moral principles, for whose violation Erben’s heroes must pay dearly. While, in the case of the song The Orphan and the cantata The Spectre’s Bride, Erben’s verse are an integral part of the composition, in the case of the symphonic poems, Dvorak had to proceed for the first time without the direct support of the text. Perhaps it was this circumstance that led the composer to come up with an unusual solution: he constructed a major part of the thematic material on the rhythmical base of Erben’s verse, thus it was possible to ascribe a number of passages in the score directly to the text that inspired them. This solution cannot be regarded as an act of necessity on Dvorak’s part, since there is no question of the composer’s fertile musical invention. On the contrary, he demonstrates a unique, original approach which lies well outside the context of the kind of programme music written by his contemporaries.
The second distinguishing feature of Dvorak’s symphonic poems is their focus on details. While the common conception of the symphonic poem is centred on its fundamental mood, the outline of its story or a general idea, Dvorak takes a magnifying glass to Erben’s text. Certain interpretations will claim that this approach interferes with the form, which becomes fragmented, given the disproportionate attention to detail, and the piece as a whole suffers as a result. This concerns, in particular, The Golden Spinning Wheel, in which Dvorak even has three repetitions of the same plot fragment (the exchange of individual parts of the spinning wheel for the dead girl’s hands, feet and eyes), which finds its justification in the story, but is superfluous from a purely musical point of view. The reverse is true of the symphonic poem The Wild Dove which, thanks to its use of a single motif for all the (often highly contrastive) moods in the story, gives the impression of being the most compact of the entire tetralogy.
The third important point regarding Dvorak’s musical setting is his precise characterisation of the moods of individual points in the plot, from the tragic and dramatic, to the scene of the wedding festivities. Apart from his well chosen motivic fabric, their overall impact is heightened by the composer’s masterful instrumentation. The sounds he creates in certain parts of the score are truly breathtaking, particularly in view of the fact that he effectively uses a traditional orchestral roster, complemented only with the subtle use of the harp, bells or triangle. In the instrumentation of his orchestral works, Dvorak had thus far essentially worked within the Beethovenesque-Brahmsian tradition; however, for his symphonic poems, he chose to enhance his orchestral palette with shades of French Impressionism.
From a formal point of view, the symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel is the most complex of the tetralogy, a fact determined by the textual model which comprises an intricate plot with various details, moreover, extending over a lengthy period of time. Dvorak’s musical setting therefore does not attempt to conform to some customary musical form; instead it follows the story more or less descriptively, just as Erben presents it. This trait was once seen as the work’s weak point, and so Dvorak’s pupil and son-in-law Josef Suk endeavoured to eliminate this alleged failing by making deletions in the score. Apart from the three superfluous repetitions of the scene depicting the exchange of individual parts of the spinning wheel for the dead girl’s hands, feet and eyes, other passages were also deleted, whose absence is, on the contrary, detrimental to the work (the striking melodies and unusual treatment of the wedding scene). The work was subsequently regularly performed in this version, but recent times have seen a return to Dvorak’s original score (or a combination of both versions). In terms of the chosen motifs, a key role is played by the opening musical passage which portrays the arrival of the king on horseback at the place where he meets Dornicka. While the melody itself, heard in the French horns, is derived from the verse “Across the broad field, out of the forest / a noble lord comes riding / on his black, spirited horse / its horseshoes ring out gaily / he rides all alone”, and later also reappears as a variant in the wedding scene, the accompanying ostinato triplet figure in the cellos already anticipates the theme of the spinning wheel which pervades the entire work.
premiere and subsequent performances
The first performance of the symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel was held at Dvorak’s request at a private concert given at the Rudolfinum by the Prague Conservatoire Orchestra on 3 June 1896, conducted by Antonin Bennewitz (the programme also included The Noon Witch and The Water Goblin). The public premiere was held in London on 26 October 1896, conducted by Hans Richter. Four performances of The Golden Spinning Wheel were conducted by Dvorak himself: in Brno on 8 May 1897, in Prague on 12 March 1898, and in Olomouc on 23 and 24 April 1898.
Dvorak was perceived by his contemporaries (and, in a certain sense, this also applies today) chiefly as an author of absolute music, as a guardian of the “old orders” which determined the classification of musical forms as defined over the course of the 19th century. Yet the established notion of Dvorak as a composer who worked exclusively with absolute musical forms is not fully justified. Despite the fact that the symphonies, string quartets and other cyclical musical forms make up the majority of the composer’s instrumental oeuvre, his musical legacy has given us a number of works which defy this categorisation. Long before writing the symphonic poems he created several works which clearly reflect programmatic initiatives – in particular, the little performed Rhapsody in A minor from 1874 and the concert overture written one year earlier, Romeo and Juliet (unfortunately no longer in existence). These were followed in 1878 by the three Slavonic Rhapsodies which may not be directly inspired by subjects unrelated to music yet, in their form, title and expression, they betray a clear tendency towards programmatic ideas. During his “Slavic period” Dvorak produced his dramatic Hussite Overture (1883), in which he employed two themes (whose simultaneous use within a single work was later frequently criticised as ideologically misguided): the Hussite hymn “Ye Who Are Warriors of God” and the St Wenceslas Chorale. The beginning of the 1890s then gave rise to a set of three concert overtures, In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello, whose unifying idea is nature in all its guises. These long-term tendencies ultimately culminated in Dvorak’s decision to compose an entire cycle of symphonic poems to themes contained in Erben’s Bouquet.
Dvorak’s “sudden” move towards programme music did not go unnoticed in the artistic circles of the day, and it generated a considerable measure of surprise. Even at the time the composer was still working on the first three parts of his tetralogy of symphonic poems, the first short articles began appearing in the press – de facto reports describing Dvorak’s intention to write an entire cycle based on Erben’s motifs: “Maestro Dr. Ant. Dvorak is working on a cycle of new orchestral works going by the title Orchestral Ballades. These are poetic images, perhaps akin to symphonic poems, which musically illustrate our enchantingly beautiful national ballads from Erben’s Bouquet.” The first response to the completed works was an article by Karel Knittl in Dalibor, penned immediately after the private premiere. Knittl describes the “feverish anticipation” of Dvorak’s new opuses, which saw the composer entering the territory of the Neo-Romantics. It was only in his later article for an anthology published by the artists’ association Umelecka beseda that Knittl suggested the appeal of the Neo-Romanticism of Liszt and Wagner was nothing new for Dvorak: “During his early career Dvorak was truly fascinated by the Neo-Romantic movement. [...] This circumstance alone sheds light on the natural course of his compositional development: he has in essence returned to the ideals from which he emerged.”
Soon after the premieres in Prague and London, the first two symphonic poems were also presented in Vienna. The reactions to Dvorak’s new works were contradictory to say the least. Seemingly, at a time when the Czechs were striving for national emancipation (endeavours which culminated in the Badeni Language Decree), the choice of themes taken from Czech national literature was not fully understood. Also at issue here was the fact that Dvorak had a number of supporters in German-speaking regions who shared the opinions of Brahms and Hanslick, and who relied upon him as an advocate of traditional forms, and his ostensibly sudden switch towards programme music was unacceptable to them. Hanslick himself was particularly vocal on this issue, in the name of formalistic aesthetics unable to conceal his surprise that Dvorak had “forsaken” all his hitherto efforts: “I am an appreciative audience where Dvorak’s music is concerned, perhaps I perceive its appeal all too keenly yet, even so, I could not remain silent regarding the dangers of this latest tendency. Dvorak has no cause to go begging before literary texts (and what literature this is!), that they might bolster his composition. His rich musical invention needs no loans, crutches or instruction. [...] It is with a strange passion that Dvorak now indulges in ugly, unnatural and ghastly stories which correspond so little to his amiable character and to the true musician that he is. In The Water Goblin we are given a fiend who cuts off his own child’s head and throws it to its disconsolate mother; in the Noon Witch it is the woman-spectre in whose arms an innocent child breathes its last.”
Leos Janacek’s articles in the journal Hlidka made a significant contribution to period reflections on this part of Dvorak’s oeuvre. Janacek avoided any form of commentary on the subject of programme music and focused instead on the music itself, and its expression. In contrast to the position adopted by Eduard Hanslick, he applauded the composer’s inspiration from specific lines of verse, a sentiment that was probably closely allied with Janacek’s own fascination with “speech tunes”; at the time of Dvorak’s premieres he was studying the pitch contours and inflections of normal speech in preparation for his work on the opera Jenufa. The realism of the musical language Dvorak created in his symphonic poems thus found great favour with Janacek, who wrote: “In all the orchestral symphonic poems that I have known, the “direct speech” of the instruments, if I might describe it thus, has never sounded with such certainty, clarity and truthfulness within the wave of melodies, as it does in The Water Goblin.”
A young king is riding in the forest and he comes upon a beautiful girl named Dornicka. He falls in love with her and wants her to become his wife. He asks her stepmother to have Dornicka come to him at the castle. But the evil stepmother offers him her own daughter, who is supposedly the spitting image of Dornicka. But the king is insistent – he will have none other than Dornicka. Then he returns to the castle. The stepmother makes use of this opportunity: she and her daughter go to the forest and cut off Dornicka’s hands and feet, and then gouge out her eyes. Then the stepmother sends her own daughter up to the castle in place of Dornicka. The king suspects nothing and a grand wedding is organised. After the wedding, the king has to go off to battle with his army. An old magician finds Dornicka’s mutilated body in the forest, and he sends his grandson to the castle three times in order to get back from the stepmother Dornicka’s hands, feet and eyes in return for individual parts of a golden spinning wheel. The boy sets off for the castle and is successful on each occasion – the stepmother and false Dornicka cannot resist the bright lustre of gold. The old man in the woods then joins the limbs to Dornicka’s body, and puts back her eyes and, with the help of a magic potion, he brings the girl back to life. The king returns from battle and his wife immediately shows off her beautiful golden spinning wheel. The king asks her to spin a golden thread. But, as soon as it starts to turn, the spinning wheel murmurs a song which describes how the king was deceived. He immediately drives the stepmother and her daughter from the castle. As they are fleeing, they are set upon in the forest by a pack of wolves which tear them to pieces. The king sets out for the woods in search of Dornicka. When he finds her, he takes her back to his castle and weds his bride.