Back with the Boston Pops & More
In the early spring of 1904 the composer Antonin Dvorak, after much world travel, including a many-years’ stay in the United States, was happily back in his Bohemian homeland. In April of that year, first Czech Musical Festival was held in Prague, and it featured almost entirely the work of Dvorak, so beloved was he and such a source of national pride for his countrymen, in a time when anti-Czech sentiment was high. Very sadly for his family, for his countrymen, and for the world, on the heels of this triumph and with many unfinished works in progress, the composer took suddenly ill with influenza, and within a few weeks was beyond hope of recovery. He was 62 years old.
During this illness, famed violinist Fritz Kreisler came to visit his friend, and asked him, “Anton, do you have any works that you have not yet released to the world?” Barely able to speak, the composer directed Kreisler to “a box over there.” In it, among some discarded manuscript pages lay our Sometimes a Song, the 7th in a series of eight “humoresques” that Dvorak had composed ten years earlier and set aside. Kreisler made it his business to have Dvorak’s Humoresques published, and himself arranged them for violin and piano. His own performance of the famous “7th” is available in a very early phonograph recording of the piece as a violin and piano duet.
The musical form of the humoresque — from a term coined by the German Romantics to denote good-hearted folk tales — was developed by Robert Schumann, who gave the name to a light piano piece he composed in 1839. In music, a humoresque — recall now that our Word of the Week, humor, did not originally mean funny in our modern sense of the word — is a composition intended to evoke “good humor,” a pleasant mood. And pleasant indeed is the best-known “Humoresque,” Dvorak’s 7th, in G-flat, one of the most popular short piano pieces ever composed, second only to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” For an example of musical sublimity, I give you the recording below of Dvorak’s piece by the extraordinarily gifted Itzhak Perlman, with the excellent Yo Yo Ma on cello.
A Final Note: Dvorak was a great lover of folk music, and that love shows not only in his “Humoresque” and in many of his other works. He was heavily influenced by Moravian and Bavarian folk tunes of his youth, and during his time in the United States made a great study of our own folk music of the 19th century and earlier. So there’s a delightful coincidence that the composer would have no doubt greatly enjoyed, only discovered after the publication of his “Humoresque”: that his tune and Stephen Foster’s “Sewanee River” work together in a delightfully polyphonic way. I can’t resist including here two such versions of the “Humoresque/Sewanee River” — the first a tour de force by our old friends at The Boston Pops Orchestra, and the second a remake of a vaudeville comedy routine used in the sitcom of sitcoms, I Love Lucy. Enoy!
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I lived in Prague for a few years in the early 1990s and occasionally strolled by the “Villa Amerika” that houses the Dvorak Museum. It has no connection to him otherwise—he never lived in it—but it is a charming building in a most picturesque setting. I first came across it in early Spring and that is how I always think of it. Czechs were insistent that we Americans attend performances of his New World Symphony and most of us happily did. It was easy enough to find his music being performed somewhere in town, especially during the Prague Spring season.
Thanks for the Dvorak and fine commentary. He is a favorite and those 'American' inspired pieces are absolutely wonderful. I wonder if you've read "Spillville" by Patricia Hampl which is an essay about Dvorak's summer in Iowa? Great reading, her language is exemplary, and Dvorak, a bit peculiar and oh so interesting!