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We don’t often associate Dvorák with program music, but he turned to it with particular enthusiasm toward the end of his life. He composed a trilogy of concert overtures on nature, life, and love in 1891-92, and in 1896 he wrote a group of four tone poems inspired by ballads from Kytice, a collection of eerie Czech folk tales in verse by Karel Jaromír Erben. These were the last orchestral pieces Dvorák wrote, other than one more tone poem (A Hero’s Song) the following year.
Most of Erben’s ballads are in the dark mood of the Brothers Grimm at their grimmest, and The Noonday Witch, the second of Dvorák’s set, is no exception. A harassed mother threatens her squalling young son with a visit from the Noonday Witch if he does not behave, and is appalled when the hobbling witch actually appears. The mother clasps her son tightly and collapses as the witch reaches out for him. When the father returns for his noon meal, he finds mother and son on the floor. He revives the mother, but his son has been smothered in her protective embrace.
Dvorák depicts all of this vividly, with motives for each character that he transforms to show the physical and psychological developments. The music opens with an idyllic scene – with the witch’s motive lurking surreptitiously – of a woman preparing the noonday meal for her husband, soon interrupted by the strident cries (flute and oboe) of her child. As the mother becomes increasingly flustered, the music grows in agitation, until she makes the fateful summons. Dvorák evokes the creeping phantasm with slithering strings and bass clarinet, and her chilling triumph in a macabre witches’ dance. This ends with the chiming of the noon hour. The final part, with the return of the unsuspecting father, is pure guilty horror, with a chittering reference to the witch and a whiplash sneer to end.
— John Henken