The best of Czech classical music, part seven: Humoresque No. 7 by Antonín Dvořák

Czech classical music is not only a part of the national culture and history, but also of its very soul. This year, we have prepared a series on renowned works of Czech classical music. Listeners 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 | Photo: Atelier Jan Langhans

A famous cartoonist once drew a picture of someone talking to Antonín Dvořák: “Sir, I expected this one to be funnier, seeing that you have called it Humoresque!” The joke, as is typical for the author’s work, is spot on. Music can sometimes convey a light, intellectual humour. But as for the full-fledged sort of comedy, music is not a well-suited medium. And even if it was, Dvořák would not be in a position to make jokes, as he wrote his cycle of eight humoresques while holding the prestigious post of director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York.

Dvořák spent a few weeks back home in Bohemia during the May of 1894. He very much looked forward to his vacation time and the steamship tickets were booked far in advance, as he wanted to have peace and fresh air to compose new ideas. He started work on a new composition with the working title “New Scottish Dances” while still in New York. He had composed Scottish Dances beforehand, a very lively piece written in 2/4 time.

Dvořák eventually decided on Humoresques as the title for his new work. Perhaps it seemed to be more humorous back then than it does to us now… The most famous Humoresque from the cycle is Humoresque No.7 – often referred to simply as Humoresque. Interestingly, its fame has continued until this day, while the rest of the pieces in the cycle are more or less unknown, even though they are just as lovely as the seventh one.

Admittedly, the seventh Humoresque is the most musically original and unforgettable piece from the cycle and it quite understandable that it became a hit already during Dvořák’s lifetime. As do several of Dvořák’s melodies, the Humoresque also has a story behind it.

The legend goes that the dotty rhythm at the end of this seventh piece symbolizes the sound of a train moving on the tracks. Perhaps it is true. It was certainly passed down through the generations, despite there not being a single mention or note from Dvořák signifying it to be true. Trains were certainly slower back then, travelling perhaps at the same speed as the rhythm of the Humoresque.

Humoresque No. 7 is a textbook example of the proper use of contrast. Its beginning and end parts are very different from each other and yet they fit together perfectly, without evoking any sort of compositional discord. Many experts consider this middle section to be very beautiful and yet underrated – members of the general public tend to prefer the beginning and end of the piece. The composer scored an unexpected triumph with this piece, as he composed it in G-flat major. As all musicians know, G-flat major is not an easy scale to play in, certainly not for your average bar pianist. For the self-confident café piano player, Humoresque No.7 is a punishment from God, respectively a punishment from Dvořák. Still, many pianists – not just the ones in the cafes – like to show off their ability to play the piece. Since they can’t play the original, they play it in G major instead of G-flat major. Unfortunately, the average listener can’t tell the difference.

Jan Kubelík,  photo: FORTEPAN / SK,  CC BY-SA 3.0

There are of course gentler variations of the Humoresque, such as the piano and (the very popular) violin versions. A very well-known variation that remains totally respectful to Dvořák’s original is the orchestral version.

But the most renowned variation is Jan Kubelík’s adaptation for the piano and violin. It was done in a similar fashion as his piano and violin adaptation of Fibich’s melody from At Twilight; Idyll – known simply as Poem. Thanks to Kubelík, violinists have a fantastic concert piece that is often used as the closing piece to a performance. We will now listen to an excerpt performed by Josef Suk, Antonín Dvořák’s great-grandson.

Besides various variations, there exist many homages to Humoresque No. 7 in modern music. In film, it features after the last scene of the film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. There it helps support the theme of the unjust murder of an innocent protagonist. The use of the Humoresque there seems cruel and sarcastic, showing how one is never prepared for death. It is almost unbelievable how the innocent and joyful Humoresque can have that type of effect on the viewer.

Dvořák’s Humoresque No. 7 belongs to the composer’s most famous compositions and is known throughout the world. Today, you can find it in countless variations and instrumentations. In its time, the piece would have stayed at the top of all the pop music charts for a long time, were they to exist back then. It was even featured in Humoresque, Otakar Vávra’s fittingly named movie which starred a young Rudolf Hrušínský in the role of a violin virtuoso.

As for the piece itself, Antonín Dvořák only wrote the piano version. And yet to this day, the piece attracts many skilful violinists. It features in the repertoire of the current elite German American violinist David Garret. The recording of his Prague performance of the piece, made by the German television channel Das Erste, is one of his most-watched videos on the internet. But today we bid farewell to the Humoresque with a performance from one of the all-time great Czech conductors, doctor Václav Smetáček.

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.