Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Overture to Don Giovanni
Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro had its premiere in Vienna on 1 May 1786. The opera was well-received, but not a smash hit—it played an unimpressive nine performances before being supplanted by Antonio Soler’s Una cosa cara. The first performance in Prague later that year, on the other hand, was a trimph. Mozart wrote: “I looked on with the greatest pleasure while all these people flew about in sheer delight to the music of my Figaro… For here they talk of nothing but Figaro; nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. Certainly a great honor for me.”
By the fall of 1787, he was writing Don Giovanni at the enthusiastic invitation of the Prague opera. The work opened 29 October 1787 and was a solid success, though the Bohemian critics (and, even more so, the Viennese) were wary of the salacious, even sordid subject matter of the opera: the rakish pursuits of Don Giovanni (a.k.a. Don Juan). Depending on whose account one believes, the overture was written either one or two nights before the premiere. As with nearly all of Mozart’s work, no matter how speedily composed, there is no sign of haste or lack of care. Opening with hammer-blow minor chords, this overture would have made it immediately apparent to the Prague audience that they were in for a much darker night of entertainment than they had encountered in Figaro…
Leoš Janáček, Lachian Dances
In 1885, the Czech composer Janáček began collecting folk songs in earnest, travelling throughout Moravia and Silesia (in the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic and Southwestern Poland). Given his longstanding interest in the Czech language, which he heard as closely aligned with music and, in fact, as musical unto itself, with classifiable “speech-motifs,” he carefully notated the songs he heard on farms, in taverns, and in people’s homes. He also assiduously transcribed the steps of the dances that went along with so many of the songs, asking his traveling companions to learn the dances themselves as an aide-mémoire, as the composer himself never danced.
Janáček wrote the pieces that would become the Lachian Dances—arrangements of dance melodies from Lachia and Wallachia in Eastern Moravia—in 1889-90, and they were premiered in Prague in 1891, as part of Ràkocz Rakoczy, a rustic folk ballet. They were not performed again until 1925, and were published in 1928, Janáček’s first printed work, with the composer’s atmospheric description: “In the valley, below the castle of Hukvaldy, there stood an in ‘u Harabašů’—a flying stone could have bowled it over… Inside, smoke and fug, one could have cut the air. ofka Harabašová, the dancer, glides from one partner to the next. That was forty-five years ago: the marvelous landscape, the quiet people, their language as soft as if one were cutting butter.”
The six dances, of which four will be played tonight, are relatively conservative, compared to Janáček’s late works from the 1920s, e.g. the Capriccio, the Glagolitic Mass, and The House of the Dead. Even so, they bear flashes of the composer’s characteristic rhythmic unpredictability, harmonic ingenuity, and vivid orchestral coloration. The folk dance on which the first and fourth movements, Starodávný I and II, are based, is also known as “Dance with the handkerchief” or “Staff dance,” because the dance calls for an odd number of male dancers, leaving one partnerless. That “odd man out” stands in place and waves a garlanded staff until the next exchange of partners. The vibrant final movement, a popular, polka-like dance in three-part form, is a celebration of the final wood-gathering for winter fuel before the season’s first snowfall.
Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 8 in G Major
His second most frequently performed symphony, after the titanically popular New World Symphony, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 is justifiably beloved for its surfeit of great melodies, sometimes to the extent that its carefully-crafted compositional construction is slighted. This not-infrequent issue with the composer’s critical reception has a long and inglorious history—consider, for example, the eminent contemporary German Bohemian music critic Eduard Hanslick’s condescending assessment: “Let us rejoice that in our uncreative age…we may still encounter as talented a composer as Dvořák, with his innocent emotions and cheerful creativity.”
Dvořák wrote the symphony over the span of two months, from September 6, 1889 to November 8, on the occasion of his election to the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences. He conducted the premiere in Prague the following year, to great acclaim, and the piece has remained solidly in the orchestral repertory since then, attaining such popularity in Great Britain that it is occasionally nicknamed the “English” symphony. The opening movement begins with a rich melody played by the cellos, clarinets, bassoons, and horns. This tune, surprisingly in G major rather than the symphony’s declared key of G major, might reasonably be expected to provide the foundational motivic building block for the work, but it is, in fact, the birdsong-like tune which follows in the flute that recurs in a multitude of forms throughout all four movements.