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Antonin Dvorak in love
Bradley Winterton
Friday,  Apr 27, 2018,13:53 (GMT+7)

Antonin Dvorak in love

Bradley Winterton

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) is one of the most popular composers, and some of his most popular works were written during a three-year stay in the United States of America.

Born a Czech, Dvorak had already received huge acclaim in his native country, as well as internationally, when he accepted an invitation to go to the U.S in 1892 as the director of the New York National Conservatory.

During his stay, he composed both his famous Cello Concerto and his beloved Symphony Number 9, “From the New World”. This symphony will be performed by the Ho Chi Minh Ballet and Symphony Orchestra (HBSO) on Sunday, April 29 in the Saigon Opera House, beginning at 8 p.m.

Both works incorporate melodies Dvorak had absorbed while in the U.S, some derived from Native American sources, some from Afro-American ones. But Dvorak found the two sources almost identical, as he wrote in a newspaper article whilst in New York. And each of them, he said, ought to be the ground base on which future American music is based.

Dvorak always loved broad melodies, but he was also deeply touched by nature and said that without his experience of the huge North American landscapes he would never have completed these masterpieces.

But there was something else that was affecting him during his stay on the opposite side of the Atlantic from his homeland. This was his doomed love for his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova.

Thus it was that a mixture of ecstasy at the American landscape and enthusiasm for Native American and Afro-American songs combined with a profound sadness over the fact that his love with Josefina could never blossom.

Such an unusual mixture of happiness and melancholy is perhaps an ideal recipe for any work of art. It’s found in almost all Mozart’s operas, for example, like the French novelist Stendhal who combined the two to an almost unbelievable degree.

The result of this is the New World Symphony, as it’s usually called, and is known as the popular symphony ever written. The famed astronaut Neil Armstrong took a recording of it to the moon being the first human to land there in 1969 – quite appropriate for an American, you might think.

The story of Dvorak’s doomed love affair was told in a novel, Dvorak in Love, by the Czech writer Josef Skvorechy in 1988. [I used to own a copy, but I exchanged it with another music critic for a collection of Thomas Mann’s musical criticism, Pro and Contra Wagner (1985), which contained the incomparably wonderful essay ‘The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner’].

The first half of Sunday’s Saigon concert will mostly consist of vocal items from operettas by Franz Lehar and Emmerich Kalman. Familiar soloists from the HBSO company such as Cho Hae Ryong, Pham Khanh Ngoc, Nguyen Thu Huong, Pham Trang and Dao Mac will all be singing.

Lehar and Kalman were both Hungarians. Kalman penned many musical works for the stage, while Lehar is mostly known for just one, Die Lustige Witwe (‘the merry widow’).

The concert will be conducted by Tran Nhat Minh, the HBSO’s Interim Head of Opera. Tickets are from VND650,000 and VND500,000 to VND200,000 (and VND80,000 for students willing to sit in the second tier, where the Opera House acoustics are perhaps the best of all).

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