Mariss Jansons conducts Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World”

10 Jun 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Mariss Jansons

Frank Peter Zimmermann

  • Bedřich Smetana
    The Bartered Bride: Overture (9 min.)

  • Bohuslav Martinů
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 (31 min.)

    Frank Peter Zimmermann Violin

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Symphony No. 9 in E minor, op. 95 “From The New World” (50 min.)

  • free

    Mariss Jansons on Smetana, Dvořák and Martinů (14 min.)

Anyone thinking of Czech music has a specific sound in mind: colourful, passionate, decidedly rhythmical, mildly exotic and almost always with a melancholy undertone. These and many other facets of the music of Bohemia and Moravia are to be found in this concert with Mariss Jansons and violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. Following works by Smetana and Bohuslav Martinů, the evening culminates in Antonín Dvořák’s famous Symphony No. 9 From the New World.

With at least two of his works, Bedřich Smetana added to his country’s cultural heritage: the cycle Má vlast, and the opera The Bartered Bride, from which we will hear the fast-paced overture in this concert. Bohuslav Martinů’s Second Violin Concerto is more restrained, reflecting the composer’s state of mind when he wrote the work in exile in the USA during the Second World War. His homesickness is conveyed through many of the Czech folk-inspired melodies. Five decades before, Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World”, full of inspiration and verve, originated in a similar way, leaving a lasting monument to Czech (much more than to American) folk music.

Mariss Jansons, chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks has long been a close friend of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Among his recordings which first attracted the attention of the international music world is his recording of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, full of emotional depth and exciting details: a performance that still impresses today.

Indians in Bohemia

Three Grand Masters of the Exchange of Musical Ideas: Smetana, Dvořák and Martinů

“According to my merits and according to my efforts, I am a Czech composer and the creator of the Czech style in the branches of dramatic and symphonic music.” Bedřich Smetana’s statement does not appear to tolerate any contradiction but is false nonetheless, since he never composed a serious symphony. What prompted Smetana to make this comment in 1882 was the feeling of not only being underestimated and neglected but also surpassed in public popularity by a colleague 17 years his junior, who had formerly played the viola under him at the Provisional Theatre. Smetana was not in the habit of praising this colleague to the skies. He thought that Antonín Dvořák lacked “a general education” and added that Dvořák was “a musician, although a very talented one, nothing more. And unfortunately that is the case with most of our composers.”

In Search of a National Style

Bedřich Smetana made various attempts to create a Czech national music using advanced means. In the comic opera Prodaná nevěsta The Bartered Bride, premiered in 1866, he appealed most successfully to popular taste – too successfully, as he concluded in his later years. The overture became the model for comedy overtures which followed. It also provides structural coherence during the opera. Both the exuberant fugal opening theme, which migrates through the strings, and the polka, which enters with stamping sforzato accents, are heard again in the central contract scene of the second act, during which the heroine is “sold” to a marriage broker by her bridegroom.

As Antonín Dvořák set about putting his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, op. 95 “From the New World” down on paper in 1893, he no longer had to think about a modern, genuinely Czech style of composition. That problem had been definitively solved. In part by Smetana, as far as the genres of dramatic music and the symphonic poem were concerned, and secondly, by Dvořák himself in the symphony. Like Smetana before him, Dvořák had been strongly influenced by the music of Wagner for many years, using it as a source of inspiration for his symphonies until he turned to Brahms as a model. In 1885, one year after Smetana’s death, Dvořák succeeded in combining Czech elements with the formal principles of Viennese Classicism in his Symphony No. 7 in D minor. From that time on, his relationship with the 19th-century “king of genres” relaxed considerably. Now he could even afford to export his acquired insights: Dvořák became an important source of ideas for the new music of North America.

Bohemian Music, American Influences

Dvořák’s ninth and final symphony “From the New World” was composed in New York and still makes use of the traditional forms of the genre in its first three movements. The finale, on the other hand, is more daring in its structure, as if the composer wanted to suggest that in the end only a new style of music could reflect the New World, the much-vaunted land of freedom. The middle movements supposedly have their origins in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic Indian poem Hiawatha, published in 1855, which had long been familiar to Dvořák. The Largo is often interpreted as the vision of the American prairie. A vision, it must be noted – until then Dvořák had seen no more of America than Manhattan. The vigorous dance step in the Scherzo and the Trio have Bohemian roots.

Although Dvořák emphasised that an American national music could only be created by harking back to Indian and Negro traditions, he also vehemently denied using such folk songs in his Ninth Symphony. All the themes in this style were merely modelled on the character of Native American melodies and plantation songs, the composer insisted. “The motifs are my own, and some I brought with me. It is and remains Czech music.” Strangely enough, however, the motifs that Dvořák had brought with him were not Czech music but Indian. An group of Native Americans had appeared in Prague in 1879, performing their dances and songs. It is conceivable that Dvořák did not attend these performances but read about them in a magazine article by his friend Václav Juda Novotný. Two musical examples were included in the article, one of which Dvořák used in the slow movement of his Symphony “From the New World”. The music of the American Indians was reimported to the United States by Dvořák.

Concert via Radio

Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World” was premiered on 16 December 1893 at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Fifty years later, on New Year’s Eve 1943 – also in Carnegie Hall – Bohuslav Martinů listened to a performance of his Second Symphony. Or more precisely, he acted as if he were listening to it. In reality, he only appeared in the hall to acknowledge the applause. He had brought a small radio along and, in an adjoining room, listened to the premiere of his Violin Concerto No. 2, which took place in Boston at the same time.

Unlike Dvořák, Martinů was not lured to New York by a contract promising him thirty times his European income – Martinů came as an emigrant. New York – where the composer arrived in March 1941 – was certainly more comfortable than German-occupied Paris, but Martinů was not happy on the Hudson. The city depressed him terribly, and he did not know how he would support himself and his wife. This question was resolved quickly, however; Martinů was soon inundated with commissions. His collaboration with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in particular, resulted in a veritable barrage of premieres on the American public.

From a Czech Idiom to a Universal Language

Martinů’s Second Violin Concerto is a lyrical virtuoso piece. It was commissioned by Mischa Elman after he heard a performance of Martinů’s First Symphony. As in the case of Jascha Heifetz, Elman’s international reputation was established during a concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker, but several years earlier than Heifetz, in 1905. Elman was very prominent in the United States, where he had lived since the early 1920s, but was unable to achieve the renown of Heifetz. Martinů had never heard him play. He asked Elman to play for him and then simply looked at the violinist in sphinx-like silence afterwards; they parted somewhat awkwardly.

Three months later, in April 1943, Elman received the completed score. Martinů had understood that Elman “was a violinist with heart and soul, whose playing, which never went beyond the limits of beautiful violin tone, had a special magic.” Despite the lyricism of the solo instrument, Martinů also allows the orchestra to make strong statements in his concerto. Before the final cadenza, which was added later at Elman’s request, the composer evokes the aura of the magical and miraculous that is typical of his later style. The second movement lingers for the most part in tranquil, bucolic realms. A highly virtuosic, dance-like Poco allegro, which frequently adopts the pace of a quick march, concludes the work.

Czech elements are heard particularly in the outer movements, but Martinů completely refashioned these elements in his personal style. The so-called Moravian cadence, which he borrowed from Janáček’s Taras Bulba before the war, and the pulsating 6/8 rhythm make Martinů’s highly individual musical idiom recognisable immediately. Not coincidentally, it was his years in America years that led him to this final synthesis in the spirit of Dvořák: transformation of the national idiom into a universal language.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Mariss Jansons, born in Riga in 1943, initially studied violin, piano and conducting at the Leningrad Conservatory, then in Vienna with Hans Swarowsky, and in Salzburg with Herbert von Karajan. In 1971, he won the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin. In the same year, Yevgeny Mravinsky took him as his assistant to the Leningrad Philharmonic where he maintained ties, continuing to appear with them frequently as a guest conductor until 1999. Mariss Jansons has regularly conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1976. From 1979 to 2000, he was chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra which he transformed into a top international orchestra. After a period as principal guest conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra between 1992 and 1997, he then took over the direction of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Since the beginning of the 2003/04 season, Mariss Jansons has been chief conductor of the Symphonieorchester und Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks. In 2004, he took on the the same role with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, with whom he most recently appeared at the Philharmonie on the occasion of Her Majesty Queen Beatrix’s state visit to Germany in April 2011, performing works by Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms. The artist’s numerous awards include the Hans von Bülow Medal of the Berliner Philharmoniker (2003), and “Conductor of the Year” (Royal Philharmonic Society London, 2004), as well as honorary memberships of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna and of the Royal Academy of Music. In 2006, Mariss Jansons was awarded the Order of the Three Stars, Latvia’s highest state honour, and in 2010 the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art.

Frank Peter Zimmermann was born in Duisburg in 1965 and was only five when he had his first violin lessons. By the age of ten he had made his debut performing one of Mozart’s violin concertos, and two years later he won a first prize at the “Jugend musiziert” Competition. After studying with Valery Gradov, Saschko Gawriloff and Herman Krebbers, he began his international career in 1983 and quickly rose to the very top of his profession. He now appears as a soloist with all the world’s leading orchestras and with all its most eminent conductors. He has given the first performances of three new violin concertos: Matthias Pintscher’s en sourdine, which he performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Peter Eötvös in 2003; Brett Dean’s The Lost Art of Letter Writing, which he premiered with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2007 under the direction of the composer; and Augusta Read Thomas’s Juggler in Paradise, which he introduced to Paris audiences in January 2009 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under the direction of Andrey Boreyko. Among Frank Peter Zimmermann’s chamber partners are the pianists Enrico Pace and Piotr Anderszewski and, as members of the Trio Zimmermann which he founded in 2007, the violist Antoine Tamestit and the cellist Christian Poltéra. Among the awards that he has received are the Grand Prix du Disque and the German Record Critics’ Prize for his recording of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for unaccompanied violin, the 1994 Rhineland Music Prize and the 2002 Music Prize of the City of Duisburg. In 2008 he was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Federal German Order of Merit. Frank Peter Zimmermann made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1986 and since then has returned on numerous occasions, most recently in January 2010, when he performed Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D major under the direction of Bernard Haitink. He plays a 1711 Stradivarius that once belonged to Fritz Kreisler and that has been placed at his disposal by WestLB AG.

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