The best of Czech classical music, part 1: Dvořák's Slavonic Dance no. 8

Antonín Dvořák en 1870

Czech classical music is not only a part of national culture and history, but also of the nation’s soul. This year we have prepared a series on the renowned hits of Czech classical music. You will be familiar with many of them, as they are widely known and regularly performed in concert halls all over the world. The background to their creation and how they were recorded will all be covered by this series in the coming weeks.

Antonín Dvořák

The magic of changing rhythms

Photo: Public Domain

The rhythmic element of classical music leaves the biggest impression when it is creative, almost bewitching. A repetitive musical motive constantly resurfaces again and again, ingraining itself in the listener. Yet Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are structured somewhat differently. The rhythm of the piece changes and the measure varies, making it much more difficult not only for the composer but also for the listener, who must be careful not to get lost in the musical transformations. A typical example of exhilarating measure changes can be found precisely in Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance no. 8.

Musicians and listeners can hear alternating measures in this excerpt: one three-fourths and two three-eighth measures. Hence the beat is: one-two-three, one two three, one two three… And yet the score is written completely differently.

When listening to the piece, the cymbals repeatedly coming in on the second beat are impossible to miss. It can seem distorting, almost as if the sounds in the piece are clashing against each other. But there lies the author’s musical whimsy, which can be rather puzzling when one listens to his composition for the first time.

From piano duet to orchestral hit

Fritz Simrock, source: Brahms Institute

It is said that the Slavonic Dances were the piece that started Dvořák’s international career. Even though he followed the piece with more great works, it was with the Slavonic Dances that the Czech composer drew the attention of the public and even some musical experts. One of them was Fritz Simrock, the owner of a prestigious Berlin publishing firm. He had already published Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, a work that had been recommended to him by the famous composer Johannes Brahms. Over time, Fritz Simrock became Dvořák’s foremost publisher. He was the first to publish 60 titles from the composer’s large body of work and the two men eventually developed a friendship that lasted until Simrock’s death in 1901.

The Slavonic Dances received wide acclaim in their original version, which was written for a piano duet (in which two players play one piano). This was a time before record players, when all music at smaller social gatherings had to be played from scratch by the people themselves, and piano duets belonged to some of the most popular forms of playing music.

The Slavonic Dances were a piece that received deserved recognition from the musical society of the time. But they were very difficult to play. Not everybody managed it as masterfully as the husband and wife duo of Renata and Igor Ardašev.

It is interesting to hear how certain parts of this famous work – Slavonic Dance no. 8 – are more striking in their original piano version. Perhaps they seem to sound more precise or pure. In contrast, other parts of the composition are much more intriguing in their dense, orchestral version.

It is the orchestral version that has indisputably had a more significant mark on music history. This is largely due to Dvořák’s typical instrumental flair. Innovative and unique, this type of music captivated listeners at the time and became what we would today call a hit.

The path of Slavonic Dances to mass recognition was enabled precisely by the instrumental version, which received the wide acclaim that the piano version could have hardly ever managed. This seems to confirm the widely known fact that Dvořák was a better instrumentalist than pianist.

Note:

The Slavonic Dances by Antonín Dvořák are a series of musical compositions that are inspired by folk music. Through their melodies, the composer evokes the rhythmic and harmonic styles of the musical culture of Slavic nations. The piece exists in two versions, orchestral and piano. It was the orchestral version that became an opus which opened Dvořák’s door to the world and started his dazzling career.

The Best of Czech classical music series was created on the basis of Lukáš Hurník's and Bohuslav Vítek's project "Millenium hits" which was broadcast on Czech Radio Vltava.