The Spectre's Bride (Svatební košile), Op. 69, B135
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
26 May – 27 November 1884
Premiere - date and place
28 March 1885, Plzeň
Berta Schmidová-Smetanová (The Maiden), Alois Schmidt (The Spectre), Hugo Krtička (Storyteller), 35th Infantry Regiment Orchestra, Hlahol of Plzeň, conductor Antonín Dvořák
Novello, Ewer & Co., 1885, London
Author of the text
Karel Jaromír Erben
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, triangle, tam-tam, bells, harp, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists (soprano, tenor, bass)
Parts / movements
1. Coro ("Už jedenáctá odbila")
2. Soprano solo ("Žel bohu, žel, kde můj tatíček?")
3. Tenore e Basso solo e Coro ("Pohnul se obraz na stěně")
4. Duetto. Soprano e Tenore solo ("Hoj, má panenko, tu jsem již!")
5. Basso solo e Coro ("Byla noc, byla hluboká")
6. Basso solo e Coro ("A on tu napřed skok a skok")
7. Duetto. Soprano e Tenore solo ("Pěkná noc, jasná")
8. Basso solo e Coro ("Knížky jí vzal a zahodil")
9. Basso solo e Coro ("A on vždy napřed - skok a skok")
10. Duetto. Soprano e Tenore solo ("Pěkná noc, jasná v tento čas")
11. Basso solo e Coro ("A byla cesta nížinou")
12. Duetto. Soprano e Tenore solo ("Pěkná noc, jasná v tu dobu")
13. Basso solo e Coro ("Tu na planině široké")
14. Duetto. Soprano e Tenore solo ("Hoj, má panenko, tu jsme již")
15. Basso solo e Coro ("Skokem přeskočil ohradu")
16. Basso solo e Coro ("A tu na dvéře: buch, buch, buch!")
17. Soprano solo ("Maria Panno, při mně stůj")
18. Basso solo e Coro ("A slyš, tu právě nablízce")
The Maiden – soprano
The Spectre – tenor
Storyteller – bass
approx. 1 hr. 20 min.
In 1883 Dvořák received a commission from England to write a major vocal-instrumental work which was to be performed at the music festival in Birmingham. Dvořák agreed to the commission. At first, he had spoken to his librettist Marie Červinkova-Riegrová of his intention to write an oratorio based on a theme taken from Czech history – he had, for instance, considered the story of St Wenceslas or Jan Hus. However, in the end, he turned to the literary works of Karel Jaromír Erben, from whose Bouquet he chose the ballad The Spectre’s Bride. He worked on his composition from April to November 1884 and the cantata was published by Novello the following year.
Antonín Dvořák to his friend Alois Göbl:
“I am delighted that my new work is coming along so well; I plan to finish the sketch this week and the rest should go like clockwork. I thank God that my guardian spirit hasn’t abandoned me; and why would he, when I’m so fond of him. I think (and you’ll see I’m not deceiving myself) that this work surpasses all my others in every respect, including Stabat. But I ask you not to mention this to anyone, I wouldn’t want people to think I’m blowing my own trumpet! – you know me.”
general characteristics and synopsis
Erben’s poem, which betrays a marked thematic similarity with the famous ballad Lenore by German poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747–1794), has a powerful plot with numerous dramatic situations which offer all kinds of opportunities for a highly contrastive musical depiction of the individual scenes and characters. Dvořák makes use of this, employing his inexhaustible source of imagery without losing sight of the requirement for overall structural unity and conciseness. He found great inspiration in the stirring rhythms of Erben’s verse, whose impact he was able to reinforce through his music. The work retains its homogeneity throughout thanks to the motif of descending fifths which winds its way through the individual sections. Dvořák’s musical setting demonstrates a clear understanding of the text and a flawless synthesis of music and verse. The cantata is typical for its dramatic expression, inventive melodies and unusual rhythms, all told, a supreme example of the composer’s creative genius.
The form of the cantata was determined by the nature of the text: the dialogue between the girl and the corpse is sung by solo soprano and tenor; the role of the narrator is entrusted to the solo baritone and mixed choir. The extensive work precisely follows the sequence of scenes as they appear in the ballad: In the opening soprano monologue the girl thinks of her beloved who left to travel abroad. She prays to the Virgin Mary that he return safely and, at the end of the scene, expresses the blasphemous thought that, if he did not return, she would rather die. Then a corpse appears at the parlour window, pretending to be the girl’s beloved, and he invites her to his home. She then sets out with him on a terrible journey through the night landscape, during which the dead man gradually throws away the objects the girl has taken with her: a little cross, a rosary and a prayer book. The couple finally arrive at the place the corpse calls his home – a cemetery. It is only now that the girl realises her mistake and she is saved by uttering a prayer of apology to the Virgin Mary and by the appearance of the first rays of the sun announcing the new day.
premiere and subsequent performances
Prior to the production in England, the cantata was first presented on two occasions in Plzeň on 28 and 29 March 1885, conducted by the composer. The performance at the Birmingham festival on 27 August of that year – involving a 400-strong choir, 150-member orchestra and Dvořák on the conductor’s rostrum – proved to be yet another triumph for Dvořák’s music outside his native country. Its success exceeded all the composer’s expectations: “There was such a furore! They kept on calling and shouting out ‘Dvorak’. The orchestra, choir and audience cheered and cheered. The ladies’ choir gathered around me and everyone wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me. I just didn’t know what was happening to me”. The English premiere in Birmingham was followed by a whirlwind tour of the work: 2 December 1885 in Milwaukee, 1 February 1886 in Edinburgh, 2 February 1886 in London, 11 and 13 February 1886 in Glasgow, 13 February 1886 in London, 19 and 20 March 1886 in Brooklyn, 23 March 1886 in Dewsbury, 24 March 1886 in Leeds, 17 April 1886 in Hradec Králové, 6 May 1886 in Chicago, 10 May 1886 in Philadelphia, 13 May 1886 in Boston etc.
English title of the work
The Czech title of the work, Svatební košile [The Wedding Shirts], refers to an old folk custom which is described in the text: before her wedding a girl would give her betrothed a wedding shirt that she had made herself. A different title was chosen for the first performance of the cantata in England, namely The Spectre’s Bride, which passed into common usage for performances of the work outside the Czech environment.
period press review
The Athenaeum, 5 September 1885:
“The culminating point of interest of the festival was reached on the Thursday evening, when Dvořák’s cantata ‘The Spectre’s Bride’ was produced. All the works of the great Bohemian master which have yet been heard in this country have shown such striking individuality of style and such complete mastery of technical resource, that curiosity was naturally excited to the highest pitch. [...] To avoid too great realism, and at the same time to give appropriate musical expression to the terrific situations of the libretto without overstepping the line of true beauty, would have taxed the utmost resources of any musician of less genius than Dvořák. That he has passed triumphantly through the ordeal, that he has been able throughout a cantata lasting more than an hour and a half in performance to keep the attention of the audience at the highest stretch, without inducing the slightest feeling of weariness or monotony, is an achievement of which he may well feel proud. A well-known musician remarked during the performance, “The man is a magician!” and we heartily endorse the statement. While the weird and supernatural elements of the story are treated with the and of a consummate master, the necessary relief is obtained by solos and duets of the most exquisite beauty. Dvořák never tortures his melodies; they flow as naturally as those of Mozart, while they are throughout perfectly fresh and original. Such numbers as the two soprano airs, “Mine did I once a lover call” and “O Virgin Mother, gracious be,” and the duets “Ah, dearest child,” “Fair is the night,” and “Now when the night so fair doth show,” are as beautiful as anything in music; while the choruses describing the fearful journey, and more especially the scene in the dead-house, are overwhelming in force and intensity. The orchestral colouring is wonderfully picturesque and dramatic, and it is not too much to say that ‘The Spectre’s Bride’ dwarfed into absolute insignificance all the other novelties of the festival. [...] The composer, who conducted his own work, received at the close an ovation which he will certainly never forget.”
The Monthly Musical Record, 1 October 1885:
“Thursday evening brought to hearing what was, after all, the real magnum opus of the festival – Dvořák’s cantata, The Spectre’s Bride. Within my assigned limits description or analysis is impossible. My readers will be sure to obtain such a masterpiece, and study it for themselves; but the pianoforte arrangement, clever as it is, conveys no sort of idea of the effect produced in performance. Such descriptive orchestral colouring, such weird, but always artistic, treatment of the supernatural, I never heard before.”