Dvorak – forgotten man of nineteenth-century music?

I’m not generally a big fan of piano music. That may sound strange coming from a professional pianist, but I have to confess that my relatively brief acquaintance with the world of international piano competitions some twenty years ago made me intensely suspicious of the direction in which solo pianism has been headed for some decades now. Somehow the mere thought of a long corridor of practice cells in a conservatoire (read: ‘penitentiary’) populated by scores of ambitious would-be virtuosi pounding away endlessly and unthinkingly at identikit repertoire (not that Chopin Etude again …) fills me with a sort of existential claustrophobia. Not that the piano isn’t a wonderful instrument; in particular the joy of playing the great art-song and chamber repertoire is for me something difficult to surpass. But there is a worrying uniformity in the way in which solo pianists are so often trained to approach their own art in terms of a quest for mechanical efficiency and digital brilliance. Technical mastery has perhaps never been so widespread as in our day, but it all too frequently manifests itself in a lack of concern for beauty of tone, a depressing lack of creativity in programme selection and (let’s be honest about it) boredom for the audience.

This is not necessarily to say that the remedy for this homogenization is more ‘personality’, if by that one means mere showmanship intent on using the music as a vehicle for the performer’s self-expression. This will probably never be in short supply, given the reality of human nature. What however seems to be increasingly rare – although obviously there are important exceptions such as Andras Schiff or Krystian Zimerman – is the depth and purity of interpretation that I associate with my first pianistic heroes such as Wilhelm Kempff or Emil Gilels.

Martin Helmchen

I was therefore all the more pleased to have the chance to hear and talk with the young German pianist Martin Helmchen when he recently visited Paris to play Dvorak’s Piano Concerto with the Orchestre de Paris under Christoph von Dohnanyi. Helmchen is no stranger to the competition circuit, having won the highly coveted Clara Haskil prize at the age of 18 back in 2001. However, everything that I heard and saw during his performance at the Salle Pleyel indicated to me that he is anything but a product of the international piano circus. Although his technical prowess is beyond dispute, it is consistently placed at the service of the music, issuing in a refreshingly unaffected interpretation derived from a search for the work’s inner structure and meaning rather than a desire  to impress the audience by pianistic display. Indeed, Helmchen stressed in conversation that for him it is basic to the act of performance that the player should not attempt to calculate the emotional effect of his/her playing on the listener. Watching him in action confirmed that this is no mere pious talk: frequently in concerts I find myself forced to shut my eyes in order to concentrate on the work being performed, but here I saw no irritating stage mannerisms or redundant theatrical gestures. Instead we were offered a transparent, eloquent reading of the text designed to allow it to speak for itself.

If anyone reading this happens to be within striking range of Berlin, I would very much encourage you to hear Martin Helmchen and high-calibre musical guests live in a new concert series at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche entitled Lebensklänge that he has established together with Uwe Steinmetz and pastor/theologian Beat Rink of Crescendo (see http://www.lebensklaenge.eu):

Helmchen’s repertoire preferences are somewhat atypical for his generation, focusing largely on the Viennese classics with a particular predilection for Schubert (perhaps not unsurprisingly, Alfred Brendel is one of his mentors); he is also one of the few young performers to champion Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Concerto. After hearing it in Paris it seems difficult to understand why this 40 minute-long piece is so infrequently heard on the concert platform – full of immediate melodic beauty but also structurally cogent, it is a powerfully expressive work yet free of the rhetorical clichés of the Romantic concerto genre. The writing is never merely formulaic but rather achieves a satisfying balance between substance and effect.

For French or German speakers, Martin Helmchen gives a fascinating video explanation of the reasons for the Concerto’s neglect among pianists, which you can find on the Orchestre de Paris website http://www.orchestredeparis.com/index.php?option=com_concert&task=videos&page=1 . He argues that Dvorak himself only came to the piano relatively late in life, and so was incapable of writing idiomatically for the instrument; for this reason the Concerto was initially deemed unplayable (‘written for two right hands’) until substantially reworked by one of the composer’s students, Vilem Kurz. Helmchen however plays the original text on the interesting grounds that Dvorak’s freedom from pre-conceived ideas about piano writing actually leads him to find unique creative solutions for the instrumental deployment of his material. Paradoxically Dvorak’s relative ‘lack’ of musical education is what allows (or perhaps forces) him to think outside the pianistic box. Whereas this was perceived in the past as a deficiency in the composer’s technical arsenal, we can now see it differently; it is Dvorak’s very distance from convention which gives his musical voice its individuality when working with inherited forms. However, this distance has also made him an ambiguous figure with whom music history has had trouble in dealing. On one hand, his proximity to the world of Brahms is such as to create certain stylistic and structural expectations which his music then frustrates. On the other hand Dvorak’s idiom is not sufficiently ‘exotic’ to be valued for the ‘otherness’ that emanates from, say, Mussorgsky. As a result, a case can be made out for saying that Dvorak is in fact one of the forgotten figures of the historiography of nineteenth-century music, his enduring popularity with the public being inversely proportional to the critical esteem with which he continues to be regarded in academic circles.

Antonin Dvorak, 1870

This is a subject which I believe is worth a little probing, as I think it sheds some light on the problematic nature of the evaluative criteria that Western music history has tended to apply in the creation of its own canon of masterworks. The critical reception of Dvorak represents an interesting case in that his enormous immediate appeal in Europe and North America at the turn of the century rapidly gave way to critical oblivion in the 1920s, when it was generally deemed that his work was insignificant, having played no role in the historical development of musical language. This line of thought was already apparent in the assessment of Robert Hirschfeld in the Wiener Abendpost in 1904, the year of Dvorak’s death:

‘Dvorak’s music has no profundity. He does not, as Bruckner, dig into the depths of his soul to bring forth an Adagio. Everything came too easily to him. […] He does not strive to go beyond the beautiful, harmonious sound and a healthy reality … Dvorak did not stand in the great line of historical evolution. He was a follower and stood to the side, a strong and shining personality who in his works gave voice to a national sensibility. In the music history of his people his work will resound gloriously. In the world history of the arts, a single line, albeit one of honor, will suffice. Outside the borders of his homeland, one will reach for this or that selection from his most beautiful chamber music works with optimism (a quality of Dvorak’s artistry), with delight in the sounds and filled with pleasure; but without being drawn to it by inner necessity, or the hope of stirring the soul or being drawn toward a glimpse of a secret, mysterious other world’ (quoted in Leon Botstein ‘Reversing the Critical Tradition: Innovation, Modernity, and Ideology in the Work and Career of Antonin Dvorak’ in Michael Beckerman, Dvorak and his world (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 11-55:11).

This clear case of damnation by faint praise offers revealing evidence of some of the prejudices that have consistently dogged the intellectual discipline of music history over the past hundred years or so. The first is the dualistic idea that the ‘beautiful, harmonious sound’ is mere decorative prettiness, having nothing to do with ‘profundity’, the ‘depths of the soul’. Then we have the ‘great line of historical evolution’, a neo-Darwinian view of musical progress that has perhaps done more than anything to blind us to seeing works as aesthetic entities on their own terms rather than as elements in a developmental chain. Needless to say, the idea that the development of the Austro-German symphonic tradition should be seen as the defining narrative of nineteenth-century music now stands thoroughly exposed as a historical construct, and one with unpleasantly racist overtones to boot. [I sometimes wonder what would be the result of constructing an ‘alternative genealogy’ of nineteenth-century music through Dvorak’s hero Schubert rather than Beethoven, and how this might be related theologically to a deconstruction of the ‘logic of domination’, of music as Promethean struggle that seems to have done so much damage over the years. But I’ll leave that for another post.]. Inherent in it is the unspoken assumption of the superiority of Germanic over Slavic culture; in Hirschfeld this takes the form of mild but unmistakable condescension in his claim that Dvorak’s name will only resound gloriously within his history of his own people, as it lacks a sense of ‘inner necessity’ (shades of Hegel here …) and a ‘secret, mysterious other world’. In Theodor Adorno’s famously vitriolic attacks on Dvorak  and Tchaikovsky thirty years later an essentially similar accusation is made far more sneeringly and forcefully; for Adorno, Dvorak’s music is mere gush, representing a cheapening of art (compounded by his embrace of America and musical populism). He particularly lampoons Dvorak’s Humoresque as ‘commodity music’:

‘Its secret lies in the broad Bohemian thirds. It’s wonderful to be able to wallow in them. You sink right in […] The thirds are Bohemian, the middle movement is Slav through and through. It begins darkly, with passion. It could turn into a dance. Instead, nothing happens. The passion is as brief as a tunnel; you can already see the sunset at the other end. […] The sentimentality which is common to all remains unaware of its universality. For this reason it thinks itself refined’ (T.W. Adorno, Quasi una Fantasia, translated Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 1992), 41).

Dvorak and family in the US, 1892-3

Strangely – given his startling insights in so many other areas – oblivious to the snobbery and ethnocentrism of his own supposedly progressive critique, Adorno contends that Slavic music, in contrast to the elevation of the masterpieces of German art, merely aims at the emotions. For him it effectively constitutes a sort of musical opium for the people’:

‘The emotional listener listens to everything in terms of late romanticism and of the musical commodities derived from it which are already fashioned to fit the needs of emotional listening. They consume music in order to be allowed to weep. They are taken in by the musical expression of frustration rather than by that of happiness. The influence of the standard Slavic melancholy typified by Tchaikovsky and Dvorak is by far greater than that of the most “fulfilled” moments of Mozart or of the young Beethoven. The so-called releasing element of music is simply the opportunity to feel something. But the actual content of this emotion can only be frustration. Emotional music has become the image of the mother who says, “Come and weep, my child.” It is catharsis for the masses, but catharsis which keeps them all the more firmly in line. One who weeps does not resist any more than one who marches. Music that permits its listeners the confession of their unhappiness reconciles them, by means of this “release,” to their social dependence’ (Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On Popular Music’, in Essays on Music, selected, with introduction and commentary by Richard D. Leppert, translated Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 462).

There is a great deal that could be said about this analysis, which arguably says less about Dvorak than about the divorce between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture in Western thought and the way in which the West’s intellectual tradition has put the head and heart in polar opposition. Adorno’s comment that ‘one who weeps does not resist any more than one who marches’ merely indicates his inability to empathize with the rural, less culturally sophisticated but perhaps more authentically human environment from which Dvorak (an innkeeper’s son who had to choose between being a musician and a butcher) emerged.

Dvorak's birthhouse, Nelahozeves nr. Prague

This is actually rather curious, given Adorno’s perceptive reading in the Philosophy of New Music and elsewhere of the soulless mechanization of the modern industrial world. While he recognizes that twentieth-century composers rooted in folk-art such as Bartok and Janacek were in effect practising a type of political resistance through their creative fidelity to oral culture, he is incapable of seeing the resolute affirmation of a Czech identity in Dvorak’s art as a courageous assertion of the local in the face of the central bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (albeit one of the more lenient imperial régimes of European history).

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it is perhaps now easier to appreciate what is precious in Dvorak’s music, without necessarily needing to see the Humoresque as anything more than the salon piece it is. Ironically, the qualities that once gave Dvorak immense popular appeal – melodic generosity, a spontaneous connection to the natural world and a capacity for passion (Seventh Symphony …) without self-absorbed Angst – now seem almost exotic, relics of a bygone era, a ‘secret, mysterious other world’. It is now far harder for the the average Western European professional orchestra to create a Dvorakian sound than to give a convincing rendition of, say, John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine for the simple reason that we are surrounded by fast machines and seem determined to mutate into them, if our modern urban lifestyle is anything by which to judge.

I myself was given compelling evidence of this some years ago when working at the Paris Opera on a production of Dvorak’s Rusalka as part of a musical and dramatic team split more or less equally between Westerners (with Renée Fleming in the title role) and Central/Eastern Europeans. As time went on I gradually realized that the ways in which the two groups perceived the opera were radically different; nowhere did this become more apparent than in their reactions to Canadian stage director Robert Carsen’s alteration of the tragic ending in which the water-nymph Rusalka sacrifices herself out of love for a human prince rather than killing him in order to save herself. It is evident in the light of Dvorak’s firm Christian convictions that the final Liebestod is meant as a parable of redemption through sacrifice (the Prince explicitly speaks of his sins being redeemed by Rusalka’s kiss), but in Carsen’s reading there was none of this as neither Rusalka nor the Prince died, and this in spite of Dvorak’s heart-rending funeral march just before the chorale-like final bars of the work. Here was a clear-cut refusal to engage with the libretto’s overtly Christian associations of death and redemption.

The inability on the part of the Western intellectual elite to relate to Dvorak’s child-like Catholic faith was already apparent during his lifetime, and is famously exemplified in the mutual incomprehension of Dvorak and Brahms in the area of religion. Writing in 1910, Dvorak’s son-in-law, the (much-underrated) composer Josef Suk tells of a conversation between himself, his parents-in-law and Brahms in Vienna in 1896:

‘Then faith and religion were discussed. Dvorak, as everybody knows, was full of sincere, practically childlike faith, whereas Brahms’s views were entirely the opposite. “I have read too much Schopenhauer, and things appear differently to me,” he said … Dvorak was very reserved on the way back to the hotel. Finally, after a very long time he said: “Such a man, such a soul – and he believes in nothing, he believes in nothing!” (quoted in Daniel Beller McKenna, Brahms and the German Spirit (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College, 2005), 31.)

If Dvorak’s oft-repeated assessment of Brahms is something of a superficial judgement, this exchange is extremely revealing as an illustration of the cultural gulf dividing the two men despite their musical friendship. For Brahms, steeped in German philosophical tradition, recovering the anachronistic ‘first naïveté’ of Dvorak was impossible; his opinion on the latter’s oratorio Svata Ludmila could have been expressed by Rudolf Bultmann, pioneer of religious ‘demythologization’, half a century later:  ‘The text, to be sure, is too silly for me! Miracles! Pure nonsense! Dvorak believes in that, he can do it’ (Richard Heuberger, Erinnerungen an Johannes Brahms, March 31 1896, 101, quoted in David Beveridge, ‘Dvorak and Brahms: A Chronicle, an Interpretation’ in Michael Beckermann (ed.), ‘Dvorak and his world (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 56-92:75).

Robert Carsen effectively provided a ‘demythologized’ reading of Rusalka (almost certainly influenced by Bruno Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic reading of fairy-tales). It was generally well-received by the Paris audience, not least on account of some strikingly beautiful visual imagery. It however provoked consternation on the part of the Czechs on our team, who felt that Dvorak’s intentions had been sabotaged. It was as if they sensed that the composer was being patronized in much the same way that academic musicology has always tended to look down on Dvorak; the subliminal message of the staging was that the composer’s charmingly ‘naïve’ concept needed saving from itself, requiring a cosmetic touch of Western sophistication in order to be made credible. The opposite interpretive approach to that of Martin Helmchen’s fidelity to Dvorak’s idiosyncratic text in the Piano Concerto. I think that it should be obvious by now where my personal sympathies lie – watching the DVD of Carsen’s production eight years on, his desire to modernize Dvorak via an original and contemporary reading ultimately strikes me as rather bland and beside the point, whereas Helmchen’s quest for authenticity paradoxically brings out both Dvorak’s genuine originality and his own personality as a pianist.

My own moment of truth during our work on Rusalka came in a rehearsal as I was playing the Act III funeral march at the piano (trying not to be distracted by the stage action which to me seemed to fly completely in the face of the music). San Francisco Opera’s renowned Jewish-Ukrainian vocal coach Susanna Lemberskaya – former accompanist to Mirella Freni among others – came to me shaking with tears of rage at the way that Dvorak was being treated. I can’t recall her exact words as she sat down at the piano bench and played the march herself with great feeling, but in essence she said ‘these people just don’t understand Slavic music. It expresses what the people are feeling inside.Dvorak’s music may well not have the thematic density of Brahms, the crushing intensity of Wagner or existential weight of Bruckner, but here in these moving bars at the end of Rusalka is the profundity which Hirschfeld mistakenly saw as lacking in the Czech composer. Not a depth of philosophical argument or theoretical knowledge, but an intuitive attunement to primal human emotion.

Here I am reminded of some memorable words of Alberto Moravia describing Verdi, but which I would see as equally applicable to Dvorak. The Czech composer

‘is not in any way modern; already an anachronism in the nineteenth century, he is yet more so today. His actuality is the actuality of poetry.’ (Alberto Moravia, Man as an end: a defense of humanism, trans. Bernard Wall (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976), 254)

This poetic sense is spontaneous rather than ‘literary’, rural rather than urban; if it is universal, it is also because it is fundamentally and unashamedly local.* If music history hasn’t known what to do with Dvorak, it is because we don’t know what to do with poetry.

Title page, Dvorak Symphony n.9

* I am indebted for this thought to the eminent Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis of Duke University, with whom I had the privilege of participating as a fellow panelist at the Reversed Thunder conference on the Psalms at St Andrews University in 2009. See Ellen F. Davis, ‘The Holiness of Place’, published online at  http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/the-holiness-place?page=full&print=true


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