Bohemian Rhapsodie Program Notes

by Claudia Jensen and Brad Clem

In our concerts this season, especially in our Taiwanese exploration, “Ilha Formosa,” and in our upcoming “East Meets West” program, Julia has curated a survey of national expression in music, and we engage with these ideas today. Does a composer have to use “authentic” folk music in order to represent nationalism? Are there other ways to reflect national elements in music?

Our opening work, by Béla Bartók, raises many of these questions. Bartók was an esteemed ethnologist who was vastly knowledgeable about the folk traditions of Central Europe. His Hungarian Sketches certainly reflects this work, but perhaps in unexpected ways. The composition is an orchestrated assemblage of miniatures drawn from several of Bartók’s earlier piano collections; although based largely on “authentic” village  experiences, the movements don’t necessarily use actual folk tunes. Thus the first two movements, “An Evening in the Village” and “Bear Dance,” both use folk-like melodies: the first movement features woodwind solos with offbeat syncopations giving the flavor of a village musical ensemble, and the second offers a kind of perpetual (and lumbering) motion for the dancing bear, highlighting brass and low strings. The third movement is the weightiest, and this is where we hear most clearly other influences on Bartók’s musical thinking. This movement is based on the “Four Dirges” for piano, from 1909‒10, which was written at a time when Bartók was beginning to realize that the profusion of scale types he was discovering in his field research were also to be found in works by avant-garde Western composers, especially Debussy. Thus in this movement we hear a lush, almost Impressionistic setting, with washes of color provided by the harp. The final two quick movements are dances, again providing contrasts in instrumentation: the constant changes of pace and the unexpected accents suggest drunken hiccoughs in the fourth movement, “Slightly Tipsy.” The actual folk tune used in the final movement appears over a drone, propelling the village dance as it whirls to a crescendo and then winds down.


The pairing of the two pieces for our violin soloist, by Joseph Joachim and Aleksandar Sedlar, also bring out interesting ways to think about national characteristics in music. Joachim is best known as a violinist extraordinaire whose artistry put many familiar works (especially the Beethoven Violin Concerto) on the concert map. Like the other composers on our program, though, Joachim’s origins were in Central Europe. He was born near what is now Bratislava, on the Esterházy estates (the Esterházy family is famous for employing Haydn in the previous century), and got his musical start in the city of Pest (unified with Buda in 1873 to become the familiar Budapest). He later studied in Vienna and Leipzig, and he moved to Berlin in the late 1860s, where he died in 1907. Joachim wrote his Notturno in Berlin, one of several violin works he composed for himself, including his well-known Concerto No. 2, “in the Hungarian manner.” He also wrote a fantasy on Hungarian themes and, with Franz Liszt, a countryman who also forged a career outside his birthplace, a Rhaposdie Hongrois for violin and piano. Given Joachim’s sustained engagement with the musical styles of his homeland, how might we understand his Notturno? Is it a nature-infused work reflecting the unspoiled countryside of his youth or is it a typical Romantic mood piece? Or, perhaps, both?


The Serbian Fantasy by Aleksandar Sedlar is a rich and vigorous one-movement concerto that falls into three large sections, in the traditional fast-slow-fast concerto layout, with folk-like flourishes and propulsive rhythms throughout.  In an on-line posting (featuring a joyous performance by our soloist and conducted by the composer—a dream team!), Sedlar described his work in ways that recall the Bartók piece, that is, generated by the language and style of folk music (“authentic” or newly composed) but offered in a traditional Western setting (a concerto played by a standard orchestral ensemble). Sedlar carefully describes his sources, writing that the work “is inspired by Serbian traditional folk tunes but it also contains originally composed material.” So, for example, the brisk and joyful opening section is newly composed, although heavily inflected by the language of folk tunes, and it is followed by another quick theme, derived by combining two different folk sources, a dance rhythm and a song. Thus, as in Bartók’s work, the question of “authenticity” leads us to an appreciation of each composer’s flexibility and generous knowledge of traditions which may—or may not—be quoted directly.


Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, which premiered in Prague in 1890, was written using a deliberately experimental approach, in which the composer was trying, as he said, “to shape the musical content of his ideas in a new manner.” This new manner relies heavily on melodies that unfold and re-fold throughout the work; as Dvořák said, when writing this symphony “the melodies just pour out of me.” You hear this immediately in the first movement, which opens, after a brief introduction, with the flute playing what sounds like a bird call, yet somehow, surprisingly, this bird call develops into a major thematic element. And indeed, Dvořák takes this sound—the flute, the bird-like call, the contour of this melody—and recalls it throughout the symphony.

This opening motif also establishes the work’s pastoral feel—Dvořák was living peacefully in the countryside during its composition. The wonderful critic for The Guardian newspaper, Tom Service, calls this perhaps the most joyful symphony of the 19th century; he describes the third movement as “pure melancholic deliciousness” and notes that, in the last movement, the trumpets reflect not a military fanfare but rather the Czech practice of using trumpets to announce a village dance. Thus, although there are many dance-like melodies and rhythms throughout the symphony, this choice of instrument represents another way to understand musical nationalism, in addition to quoting folk songs.

Dvořák brought this symphony with him on his famous trip to America, where he performed in Carnegie Hall in 1892, and then vacationed in the small, mostly Czech community in Spillville, Iowa the following year. But his American trip was not intended as an investigation of Czech music abroad; Dvořák had originally been invited to the US to head up a proposed National Conservatory of Music in New York.  As the inimitable music historian Richard Taruskin writes, Dvořák wasn’t invited to New York because he was a some sort of “folksy primitive” with a passionate Slavic soul, but “because he was a world-class master” in the pan-European musical tradition. This international quality of Dvořák’s music was on exhibit when, on this same US trip, he went to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he conducted his Eighth Symphony, among other works. Thus, this symphony, and our program today as a whole, gives us many ways to take an expansive and open-minded view of what nationalism in music can encompass, what it can express, and what it can mean to both composers and audiences alike.