The stories of Dvořák’s symphonic 'Bouquet'

Wherever you are in the world, if you are an occasional listener to your local classical music station then you have probably come across Antonín Dvořák’s set of symphonic poems from 1896, opuses 107 to 110. What you may not know is that they describe a series of stories very dear to Czech culture, Kytice, or "The Bouquet".

Without that background information you can enjoy the symphonic poems just as much – they’re more than just beautiful and melodic, they create a profound atmosphere, and it would be interesting to collect some of the fantasies that non-Czech listeners enjoy when listening to them. The most remarkable thing about the pieces, arguably, is that they perfectly match the mood of the literary poems that they describe, Kytice z pověstí národních, or The Bouquet of National Legends, written by 19th century historian Karel Jaromír Erben. Once you know the stories behind the works, they come to life in a new way.

The 13 poems that make up The Bouquet were a huge inspiration to Czech artists during the national cultural revival, and they’ve remained a central piece of Czech literature for more than 150 years. Most interestingly, they are not fuzzy bedside stories, but tales of horror that pit average people against terrifying forces of nature and the imagination, with the people in most cases losing out and suffering disproportionately.

I will call Dvořák’s cycle The Bouquet here, though the composer only named the individual pieces the four individual pieces that he took from the collection.

Vodník – The Water Goblin

The first of the pieces is The Water Goblin, a popular character in Central European folklore, despite the fact that his business is to drag people under the water and put their souls in cups. The poem begins with the creature sitting by the pond on a willow stump, sewing is wedding clothes. Meanwhile a local maiden is setting out to wash her clothes in the pond, when her mother warns her of a dream she had, and entreats her to stay away from the water. Just as the girl dips the first piece of clothing in the water, the pier beneath her breaks.

The maiden lives beneath the water as the goblin’s wife, and bears him a son that the creature loves, but yet she yearns for her mother and begs to visit her. The goblin eventually relents and grants her wish, on the condition that she return to him in time. When, of course, she does not return, the goblin comes for her. Her mother has convinced her that the goblin is a murderer, they refuse to leave the cottage and demand that he bring the child to them. Their wish is fulfilled – the baby is brought to the cottage, and thrown at the door with a bang, blood seeps over the threshold, the child’s head has been torn from its body. The piece ends with the water goblin disappearing back into the misery of the pond.

Polednice – The Noon Witch

The Noon Witch
The next of the blossoms in Dvořák’s Bouquet is another character from the collective mythology of Slavic cultures. The Noon Witch is a nasty old lady who appears in the fields at the hottest time of the day. She carries a reaper and asks questions of people, generally children. If they answer incorrectly, she strikes them down. Best then if Czech children stay out of the hot sun and away from the crops.

In Erben’s poem, a mother is trying to ready lunch before her husband comes home, and her child is having what we call today a temper tantrum. She warns the wailing child that if he doesn’t stop the Noon Witch will come, but the child pays no attention. Noon strikes, and who comes into the kitchen but the magical old hag. The mother is in horror that her threat has materialised, she falls into prayer gripping her child in her arms. When she opens her eyes there is no witch, but only her husband, who finds she has choked the child to death in her terrified embrace.

Zlatý Kolovrat – The Golden Spinning Wheel

The Golden Spinning Wheel is probably the most famous of the poems, and likewise the most gruesome. The ballad, and Dvořák’s music, begin pleasantly enough.

The king is hunting in the forest, and taken by thirst, he stops at a cottage for refreshment. There he meets a beautiful damsel, Dora, and – apparently with regal resolve – promptly asks her to marry him. Enter the wicked step-mother, who offers the king her own daughter instead. The king will not hear of it, and orders the woman to bring her step-daughter to the castle the next day.

The mother and step-sister resolve the situation by murdering Dora in the forest, cutting off her limbs and pulling out her eyes. The king is tricked into marrying the wicked step-sister, and leaves her spinning thread while he goes off to battle.

Back in the forest, a strange old man finds the trunk of Dora’s body, deduces the situation, and sends his page to the castle to retrieve the body parts for a golden spinning wheel. Once he has them, he puts Dora back together with the help of some water of life.

When the king returns, he asks his wife to show him how the golden spinning wheel spins gold thread. The spinning wheel itself though has a plan if its own, and it tells the king what the wicked woman and her daughter have done with his beloved. The king finds Dora in the forest, and punishes the frauds – how else – by chopping off their limbs and cutting out their eyes.

Holoubek – The Wild Dove

A young widow is mourning the loss of her dead husband, when a dashing young man with a feather in his hat comes by and asks her for her hand in marriage. For the first day she weeps. On the second day she is quiet, and on the third her grief has passed. The wedding takes place, it is a noisy and boisterous affair. Holding the woman in his arms, the groom bids her to laugh and embrace him and to kiss him, promising that the dead hear nothing, and do not rise from their graves.

A wild dove on a tree above the dead husband’s grave thinks otherwise. It sits in the branches over the grave, and coos whenever the woman passes by. Maybe it’s just cooing as a pigeons in trees tend to do, but the woman hears indictments of her guilt, she feels that everyone hears it. One day she can no longer bear the torment of her conscience, and she drowns herself in a nearby stream.