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Carnival Overture

Dvořák’s Carnival Overture represents humankind’s capacity for joy and celebration.

Antonín Leopold Dvořák was born at Mühlhausen (Nela-hozeves), Bohemia, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He composed his Carnival Overture between July 28 and September 12, 1891, as the second of three overtures conceived originally as an orchestral triptych entitled “Nature, Life, and Love,” but ultimately published under the separate titles In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello. Dvořák led the first performance of all three overtures (as the originally intended triptych) on April 28, 1892, with the expanded orchestra of the National Theatre in the Rudolfinum in Prague, subsequently leading the American premiere of the triptych on October 21 that year, in Carnegie Hall.

The overture is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 10 minutes long.

International success came late to Dvořák. After early musical training from a local schoolmaster, he began his formal musical education in 1859 at the Prague Organ School, having also spent some time as an assistant to his butcher-innkeeper father. He played viola in a Prague concert band, and then in the orchestra of the Czech Provisional Theatre, supplementing his income by working as an organist and giving private lessons. Dvořák was principal violist at the Provisional Theatre when Richard Wagner led a concert of his own music there on February 8, 1863; from 1866 the conductor of the orchestra was Bedřich Smetana, before Dvořák the most important Czech nationalist composer. In 1877 Dvořák was championed by Johannes Brahms, who several years earlier had been on the judicial panel that awarded him an Austrian State Stipend for “young, poor, and talented musicians in the Austrian half of the [Hapsburg] Empire”; now Brahms encouraged his publisher Simrock to print some of the younger composer’s music, thereby bringing Dvořák to the attention of other German publishers. With his Opus 46 Slavonic Dances, Dvořák’s popularity in Germany and England was secured, and a series of visits to England (where he led the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in London in April 1885, in a concert of the Royal Philharmonic Society) solidified his reputation there as one of the greatest composers of his time. Continued success followed at home and abroad, including an extended period in America to head the National Conservatory of Music in New York while on leave from his post as Professor of Composition, Instrumentation, and Musical Form in Prague. It was in New York that his final symphony, From the New World, had its premiere on December 16, 1893, and where, during his final year at the National Conservatory (1894-95), he composed his B minor Cello Concerto and began his last work for chamber ensemble, the string quartet in A-flat. From 1901 until his death he was the director of the Prague Conservatory.

At Symphony concerts we know Dvořák mainly as the composer of symphonies, the Cello Concerto, and perhaps the Violin Concerto. But there are overtures, too, including three conceived as a triptych (Nature, Life, and Love) and slated for publication as his Opus 91; Dvořák composed these one after another between the end of March 1891 and January 1892, when he was fifty. (Carnival was to have been Opus 91, No. 2, set between the two we know now as In Nature’s Realm and Othello.) There are also four symphonic poems from 1896, based mainly on stories from Czech folklore, and another from 1897, after which Dvořák chose to focus his attention on opera; there are three of these from his final years, the “fairy tale opera” rusalka being the best-known. In that late series of symphonic poems, Dvořák’s intent was to depict in musical terms the specific characters and events of the tales that inspired him. In his previous orchestral program music—notably the Nature, Life, and Love triptych—his aim was a more general depiction through music of atmosphere and mood, allowing him, as he commented to a friend, to be “a poet as well as a musician.”

Dvořák led the first performance of the triptych on April 28, 1892, the night before he left for America; on that occasion the program listed the works as Nature, Life (Czech carnival), and Love (Othello). With Dvořák out of the country, it was Brahms who ultimately corrected the proofs for the three overtures, which were published by Simrock in March 1894 as Dvořák’s opus numbers 91 (In Nature’s Realm), 92 (Carnival), and 93 (Othello), the composer by then having decided that each of the three—in F major, A major, and F-sharp minor, respectively—should be viewed as “a self-contained whole.”

In his biography of Dvořák, Otakar Šourek writes that, to judge from the composer’s own notations in the scores and also from contemporary statements,

Dvořák wished in this cycle to draw in overture-form musical pictures of three of the most powerful impressions to which the human soul is subjected: the impression of the solitary, wrapped about by the exalted stillness of the summer night; the impression of a man seized into the joyous vortex of life, and finally the feeling of a man in the power of a violent love poisoned by jealousy. In more concise terms: to present nature itself, free acceptance of it, and distortion of it.

With this in mind, the composer unified the three overtures musically through use of a motto “nature theme” that appears originally as the principal idea of In Nature’s Realm, recurs occasionally in Carnival, and returns, darkened or distorted, in Othello. Beyond that, suffice to say that Carnival is marked by exuberance, high spirits, tenderness, occasional shadows, and that airiness of musical texture so uniquely Dvořák’s, with, midway through the sonata-form structure, a pastoral, open-air interlude (including a reference in the clarinet to the “nature theme”) that bears striking witness to the composer’s love of nature and his native land.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel joined the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and managed the BSO’s program book from 1979 until his retirement as Director of Program Publications in 2020.

The first American performance of the Carnival Overture, as stated above, was led by Dvořák himself at Carnegie Hall, New York City, on April 28, 1892.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of the Carnival Overture were led by Emil Paur in January 1895.