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Success abroad and at home transformed Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) from a struggling Bohemian (in both senses of the word) into an international celebrity around 1880. He had conducted a concert of his own music in Prague in 1878 and had since become the go-to guy for any ceremonial or occasional music - the Festival March for the silver wedding anniversary of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth and the Prague Waltzes premiered in 1879; the Polonaise for the Academic Reading Union and the Polka for the Prague Student Union both date from 1880. The publication of his first eight Slavonic Dances, still among his most recognizable and popular works, by Simrock in Berlin in 1878 was a smash hit - Dvorák used the profits to buy a country estate outside Prague.
Simrock also published the Zigeunermelodien (Gypsy Songs; 1880), Op. 60, the second set of songs he offered to a public hungry for music by his newest star. (Simrock also published Brahms; the earlier set of Dvorák songs had been the Moravian Duets for soprano and contralto.)
The Gypsy Songs capitalized on the exoticism and allure Slavic east-central Europe held for the rest of the continent, but kept these Slavic elements non-threatening by being in German. Anti-Czech and anti-Slav feelings in the Austro-Hungarian empire, which were at their height in the 1880s, may explain why Dvorák set Adolf Heyduk's texts in the poet's German translation rather than in the original Czech original. In practical terms, there was a larger market for songs in German than for songs in Czech, and most of Dvorák's songs were published first in German, then in Czech.
The Gypsy Songs contain no actual gypsy melodies, but Dvorák's familiarity with gypsy music made it easy for him to mimic its plangent harmonies, dusky colors, and dancing rhythms. This gypsy flavor can be tasted right at the beginning of the first song, in its opening ritornello. There are moments of rapt intensity as well - the hypnotic, falling accompaniment in "A les je tichý" (And the woods are silent), or the nostalgic, poignant warmth of "Kdyz mne stará matka zpívat ucívala" (When my old mother taught me to sing, a.k.a. "Songs my mother taught me," which is probably Dvorák's single most famous song). The cycle demonstrates Dvorák's immense skill as a song writer, a still unfamiliar facet of one of the Romantic era's greatest symphonists.
-- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.