The Noon Witch (Polednice), Op. 108, B196
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
11 January – 27 February 1896
Premiere - date and place
public rehearsal: 3 June 1896, Prague
formal premiere: 21 November 1896, London
public rehearsal: Prague Conservatory Orchestra, conductor Antonin Bennewitz
formal premiere: Queen’s Hall Orchestra, conductor Henry J. Wood
Simrock, 1896, Berlin
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, bell, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
approx. 14 min.
The four symphonic poems set to themes from Karel Jaromír 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 Dvořák’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 his poems Rosemary and The Orphan’s Bed (under the title 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 musical themes faithfully evoked Erben’s verse, a principle Dvořák would apply once again fifteen years later in connection with the composition of the symphonic poems. Moreover, in 1884, Erben’s ballad The Spectre’s Bride became the inspiration for Dvořák’s full-length cantata for solos, choir and orchestra.
Dvořák 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 Záhoř’s Bed. It seems that he was very taken with the idea, since he writes in a letter to his friend Emil Kozánek: “I’m really fired up now! I’m planning to delve into – Záhoř’s bed!! If I can manage it as Erben did, it will be alright!” This objective was probably also the subject of Dvořák’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 Dvořák 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 Dvořák 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 Dvořák’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, Dvořák 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 Dvořák’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 songs Rosemary and 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, Dvořák 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 Dvořák’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 Dvořák’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, Dvořák 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 Dvořák 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 Dvořák’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, Dvořák 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.
Of the entire tetralogy of symphonic poems, The Noon Witch is the shortest, which corresponds to the rapid flow of the story in Erben’s poem. In order to avoid excessive brevity, Dvořák expands on the original model by adding an introductory section depicting a domestic idyll and he also repeats the entire scene of the conflict between the mother and child. The following section, marked Andante sostenuto e molto tranquillo and using sordini strings and the bass clarinet, suggestively describes the arrival of the terrifying figure of the Noon Witch. Dvořák’s musical imagery in this scene is one of his finest. According to Leoš Janáček, the setting is “so faithful that one could actually touch that terrible shadow in those strange, limping, extraordinary and unimagined harmonic steps”. The following passage is built up around the motif of the Noon Witch into a kind of grotesque scherzo, as if the Noon Witch were cavorting around the mother and child in a sinister dance. The final section of the symphonic poem tells of the father’s jovial return home and his discovery of the dead child. The majestic coda then combines the motifs of the mother and the triumphant Noon Witch to great effect. With a little imagination one might also see this symphonic poem as a traditional four-movement symphonic structure condensed into a single tract: 1st movement (Allegro): mother with child; 2nd movement (Andante sostenuto): arrival of the Noon Witch; 3rd movement (Scherzo): dance of the Noon Witch; 4th movement (Andante): father’s return and conclusion.
premiere and subsequent performances
The first performance of the symphonic poem The Noon Witch was held at Dvořák’s request at a private concert given at the Rudolfinum by the Prague Conservatoire Orchestra on 3 June 1896, conducted by Antonín Bennewitz (the programme also included The Water Goblin and The Golden Spinning Wheel). The public premiere was held in London’s Queen’s Hall on 21 November 1896 and conducted by Henry J. Wood. Soon afterwards, on 20 December 1896, The Noon Witch was also presented by conductor Hans Richter in Vienna. A further two performances were given by Dvořák himself, in Brno on 8 May 1897 and in Prague on 12 March 1898.
Dvořák 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 Dvořák 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 (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” Dvořák produced his dramatic Hussite Overture (1883), in which he employed two historical musical themes: 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 Dvořák’s decision to compose an entire cycle of symphonic poems to themes contained in Erben’s Bouquet.
Dvořák’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 Dvořák’s intention to write an entire cycle based on Erben’s motifs: “Maestro Dr. Ant. Dvořák 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 Dvořák’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 Umělecká beseda that Knittl suggested the appeal of the Neo-Romanticism of Liszt and Wagner was nothing new for Dvořák: “During his early career Dvořák 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 Dvořák’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 Dvořák 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 Dvořák had “forsaken” all his hitherto efforts: “I am an appreciative audience where Dvořák’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. Dvořák 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 Dvořák 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.”
Leoš Janáček’s articles in the journal Hlídka made a significant contribution to period reflections on this part of Dvořák’s oeuvre. Janáček 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 Janáček’s own fascination with “speech tunes”; at the time of Dvořák’s premieres he was studying the pitch contours and inflections of normal speech in preparation for his work on the opera Jenůfa. The realism of the musical language Dvořák created in his symphonic poems thus found great favour with Janáček, 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 mother is trying to prepare lunch, but her child is screaming for attention. She gives it some toys to play with, but nothing helps. So the mother decides to scare the child with a story about the Noon Witch who is said to come after children if they are naughty. At that moment, the church bell rings out, announcing that it is twelve o’clock – and there in the doorway stands the Noon Witch herself. She hobbles across the parlour, her arms reaching out for the child. The mother grabs her child and then faints in shock. The father comes home and finds the mother lying on the floor, their child in her arms. He manages to revive the mother, but the child is dead.