Renée Fleming dans Rusalka (2014) © Ken Howard
Renée Fleming dans Rusalka (2014) © Ken Howard

Opera and national identity: Antonín Dvořák

Dvořák is the second Czech composer to achieve worldwide recognition. His catalogue of works makes a valuable contribution to the national repertoire. Following Smetana's tradition, Slavic Culture is now exalted, free from Austria’s control.

While Antonín Dvořák is still improving his skills as an orchestral musician, Bedřich Smetana is regarded as the father of Czech music. Smetana's first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, is premiered at Prague's new Provisional Theatre, and he also becomes its principal conductor; the theatre is a meeting place for music pioneers in Bohemia. It becomes a place of cultural claims, particularly thanks to the operas by Smetana that are in direct confrontation with the ruling power, The Austrian Empire.

Under the yoke of the House of Habsburg for several centuries already, the cultural, administrative and religious control has become stronger after the Battle of White Mountain (1620), lost by the Bohemian and the Palatine of the Rhine, facing the Catholic League of the Holy Roman Empire - allied to the Spanish monarchy. Stunted by the Empire, the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia have their linguistic and literary development suspended for almost two centuries. The 19th century announces the national rebirth of the country, mainly encouraged by the Romantic movement, which - as elsewhere in Europe - fosters the desire to have an independent national identity.

1848 is a very important year for Europe: it is time for the People's Spring, involving France - which has already started a revolution, followed by Poland, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire. The ancient House of Habsburg is shaken and, by extension, the feudal structures are questioned, too. It is now the opportunity for musicians to foster nationalist sentiment in their works. František Škroup is, in the strict sense, the first composer of a modern Czech opera. However, heavily influenced by the German romanticism, he builds his works on the imitation feature of folk songs, thus trying to create a national identity. Unfortunately, it is not the case.

The birth of modern Czech opera takes place mainly thanks to the influence of other European countries, especially in science and literature. With regard to modern Czech music strictly speaking, the influences on it are many: Wagner, Liszt, Weber, Auber, Beethoven allowed both Smetana and Dvořák to build a national musical style permeated by Slavic popular folklore.

Dvořák is nonetheless the only one who manages to interiorise Czech folk tradition. Unlike Škroup who had tried to transpose original rhythmic and melodic patterns from Slavic traditional pieces, without perceiving them as his own, Dvořák finds in folk music the purest expression of the genius of the Slavic people. He captures its essence in order to write the dominant theme of the scene between the gamekeeper and the kitchen-boy in his opera Rusalka.

Rusalka is the opera in which the poetic genius of Dvořák reaches its peak. The composer preaches, through the figure of this young and loving girl, all the poetic features of his people, mixing mythology with Slavic, Germanic and Russian legends. This anonymous mermaid/nymph is pushed to the forefront in Bohemia, becoming a Czech heroine, the symbol of the Slavic culture.

©Culture Club / Contributeur
©Culture Club / Contributeur

Dvořák and Jaroslav Kvapil (the author of the libretto) use all the different legends on water spirits that permeate Eastern Europe, and they alternately borrow elements from other literary works. Kvapil takes some elements by the Brothers Grimm, he uses the love story and the dagger from The Little Mermaid by Andersen and finally the (not entirely new) figure of the Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. However, it is worth pointing out that these undines and rusalkas come to life thanks to Romantic fantasy mixed with the foundations of Germanic/Norse and Slavic paganism.

The opera by Dvořák and Kvapil goes beyond their manichaeistic literary inspiration. We must not radically oppose the world of water spirits to our world (even if the libretto underlines the noble spirit of the heroin facing the man who betrays her), but instead focus on the nature surrounding the two worlds. This consecration is only carried out through music, and cannot be seen in the libretto. The composer manages to glorify the environment, nature, Slavic culture, but also the very nature of Rusalka: a young, innocent girl crushed by love, whose arias express the essential nature of Czech folk art.

You are listening to :