Friday, September 30, 2011

Prokofiev - Tocatta For Piano

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian composer and a major composer of the 20th century.  Fearing there was  no place for his experimental music in his homeland, he left Russia in 1918 during the Revolution and lived various places abroad. After missing his homeland for so many years he returned to Russia in 1935 and spent the rest of his life there.

The fate of Prokofiev and his music vacillated with the Communist Party leaders from acceptance and recognition to condemnation. During the Second World War official restrictions on the type of music allowed by the government were lifted, only to see them reinstated after the war.

He wrote for orchestra and chamber ensembles, and he was also a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer, writing many pieces for the piano. The Tocatta Opus 11, was written in Russia in 1912 and premiered by the composer in 1916. The tocatta is an old form of music originating in the Renaissance in Italy.  The word is taken from the Italian word for 'touch'. It is usually written for a keyboard or other solo instrument and it emphasizes fast, nimble finger work.  Prokofiev casts his Tocatta in a modern virtuosic idiom and it is a challenge for any pianist to play.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cowell - The Banshee

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was an American composer, teacher and pianist.  He was a part of the avante-garde movement in music at the turn of the 20th century. He experimented with complex rhythms, atonality, and was an early advocate of the use of tone clusters.

He also would play directly on the strings of the piano, sometimes for the entire piano piece. The Banshee is one of these pieces. It takes two performers to play, one to play the strings, the other to hold down the pedal of the piano.

A Banshee is from Irish mythology, is female and appears as an omen of death and to bring messages from the other world.  The Banshee begins to wail when someone is about to die.

Cowell directs the performer to wave their hands over the strings like a harp, to pluck the strings, to scrape their fingernails over the wound strings of the bass notes. It is for a grand piano, and the performer stands in the bend of the piano with their arms and shoulders inside the piano. Cowell brings out some very distinctive, different sounds from the piano, well suited to the subject of the piece.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Handel - Organ Concerto In B-flat Major, Opus 7, No. 1

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a German composer who spent time in Italy before finally settling in England.  

He was a virtuoso performer on the organ and harpsichord and there is a story of a contest between Handel and Scarlatti in Rome, Italy on organ and harpsichord. Handel was judged superior on the organ while Scarlatti was judged superior on the harpsichord. He was born in the same year as both Scarlatti and J.S. Bach, but he never met Bach.

Handel has been highly esteemed by other composers. Mozart reportedly said of him, "Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt." And Beethoven was another admirer. "He was the master of us all, the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb. Go to him and learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means," Beethoven said of him.

He wrote in most forms of his time, but had his fame rest on Italian Opera and Oratorios. He wrote 42 Italian operas and when they fell out of favor he wrote Oratorios, of which his Messiah is the most well-known.  During the intermissions of his Oratorios, Handel would conduct and play an organ concerto for orchestra and organ.  He wrote 16 Oran Concertos, some of which have connections with specific Oratorios.

Most of the Organ Concertos are written for a one-manual organ without foot pedals. The concerto discussed here is an exception as it was first performed on a two-manual organ with pedals. Handel left some of the parts of some concertos out, usually a place in the score that reads ad libitum, or at liberty, and he fully expected the performer to improvise the missing part as was the custom of the day.  That fact makes performances of these concerti unique,  with no performance the same as the last.

This concerto is taken from his Opus 7 set of six concertos.  A contemporary critique of Handel's playing as written in 1776 by Sir John Hawkins in his book General History Of The Science And Practice Of Music:

"A fine and delicate touch, a volant finger, and a ready delivery of passages the most difficult, are the praise of inferior artists: they were not noticed in Handel, whose excellencies were of a far superior kind; and his amazing command of the instrument, the fullness of his harmony, the grandeur and dignity of his style, the copiousness of his imagination, and the fertility of his invention were qualities that absorbed every inferior attainment. When he gave a concerto, his method in general was to introduce it with a voluntary movement on the diapasons, which stole on the ear in a slow and solemn progression; the harmony close wrought, and as full as could possibly be expressed; the passages concatenated with stupendous art, the whole at the same time being perfectly intelligible, and carrying the appearance of great simplicity. This kind of prelude was succeeded by the concerto itself, which he executed with a degree of spirit and firmness that no one ever pretended to equal."

Handel's Organ Concerto #7, opus 7 No. 1 in B flat Major:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Schoenberg - A Survivor From Warsaw

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian composer that emigrated to America to escape Nazi Germany in 1934 and became a U.S. citizen. He was a great teacher and taught many composers and musicians in Europe before he emigrated and in America afterwards.  Schoenberg composed in many different forms from piano miniatures to complex pieces for orchestra. He is most famous (some would say notorious) for developing an entirely new way of composition based on the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, twelve tone technique

Twelve tone music has no tonal center like more conventional music.  Each tone of the chromatic scale is equal in importance harmonically and melodically with the other eleven. Schoenberg developed this 'new' system almost 100 years ago, and it is still so dramatically different from music based on tonality and keys that many cannot grasp it.  The subject matter for A Survivor From Warsaw is well suited for the music Schoenberg wrote for it.  The music is as difficult to listen to as the story itself.  The piece is for narrator, orchestra and chorus. The story depicted by the narrator:

The narrator tells the story of a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto during WW II, from the time in a concentration camp. He doesn't remember how he ended up living in the sewers of Warsaw. One day in the camp the Nazis held a roll call for a group of Jews.  As the group tried to gather the guards beat the old and sick who couldn't like up fast enough. Those left on the ground were assumed to be dead and the guards asked for another count to see how many would go to the gas chamber. The guard asks for a faster and faster head count and the work ends with the Jews singing the prayer Shema Yisroel.

Schoenberg's tribute to the victims of the holocaust - A Survivor From Warsaw

Haydn - Symphony 82 in C Major, 'The Bear'

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was an Austrian composer that was a leader in what is known as the Classical Era in music. His total compositional output is staggering, with 104 Symphonies, 68 String Quartets, 52 Keyboard Sonatas, with a total of over 750 works.

He was the Kappelmeister for almost thirty years for the affluent Esterházy family at their isolated and remote estate in Hungary.  "I was cut off from the world. There was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original," Haydn has been quoted as saying.  He composed endlessly for his patrons at the estate, was in charge of the care and upkeep of the instruments, lead the orchestra, played in chamber music groups, and lead the production of operas at the estate. 

Haydn's fame as a composer grew despite his isolation, and he was granted permission from his employers to accept commissions for works from others. One of these commissions was from a group in Paris, France. In 1785 they commissioned six symphonies from Haydn. One of these symphonies was number 82 in C Major, 'The Bear'. The Symphonies created a sensation in Paris and were very popular. 

This Symphony got its nick name from the 4th movement of the work. A musician that was doing a transcription of the symphony for piano thought the droning bass imitation of a bagpipe sounded like music to accompany a dancing bear. Dancing bears were a popular street entertainment of the time. 

Haydn was of a generally good disposition and had a great sense of humor.  Sometimes that sense of humor comes through in his music, as it does in this symphony.

Haydn's Symphony #82 in C Major, 'The Bear':

Monday, September 26, 2011

J.S. Bach - Passacaglia And Fugue In C Minor BWV 582

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a German composer and a contemporary of Domenico Scarlatti and George Handel. He was a virtuoso organist and harpsichordist and also played the viol and violin. He was the culmination of the Baroque era of music and was a master of counterpoint. He composed secular and sacred music for orchestra,  chorus and solo instruments. He came from a very musical family, for over 200 years there were more than 50 members of the Bach family that held various musical posts throughout the state of Thuringia.   J.S. Bach had over 20 children, with those surviving infancy taught music by Bach himself.  Four of his own sons became influential composers in their own right.

The amount of music Bach wrote in his lifetime is enormous, with over 1,000 items listed in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis  (Bach Works Catalog). Bach was a master organist and improvisor on the instrument so it's only natural that his organ works are considerable in number.

The Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor is believed to be an early work written between 1706-1713.  The passacaglia is a type of music usually written in triple time with one part, usually in the bass, being repeated throughout the piece (called an ostinato) with a set of continuous variations played over it. Bach's ostinato is heard all by itself at the beginning of the piece in the pedals of the organ. This ostinato 'tune' is then woven through the rest of the passacaglia like a golden thread while a set of variations are played.  The Fugue follows without a pause, and takes as one of its subjects the ostinato tune of the passacaglia. It is a tribute to the creativity and intellect of Bach's mind that even after all that has happened to the ostinato in the passacaglia that Bach is not through with it. The fugue is actually a double fugue and the two themes are developed as only a master of counterpoint could do.

Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cesar Franck - Symphony In D Minor

César Franck (1822-1890) was a Belgian composer who was also an organist, pianist and a teacher in Paris for many years.  He took French citizenship in 1872 upon his professorial appointment at the Paris Conservatoire.

Franck was a child prodigy and gave his first public recitals in 1834 when he was twelve. He also began composing early, but due to harsh criticism of his works he ceased composing and concentrated on the organ and his teaching duties. He became a virtuoso on the organ and a master at improvisation, and was hired by an organ manufacturer to demonstrate their instruments.

With his tenure as Professor Of Organ at the Conservatoire, Frank renewed his efforts at composition and during the last eighteen years of his life he composed the works which he is known for.  The Symphony In D Minor was composed in 1886-1888 and combines  cyclic form of composition (a technique much used by Liszt and Wagner and some French composers) with a decidedly German style of orchestration. The first theme heard when the piece begins is the kernel upon which the entire symphony is built.

The politics of the time lead to very harsh criticism of the Symphony when it was premiered. A Symphony by a Frenchman written in a German style of orchestration was not conducive to good reviews so soon after the Franco-Prussian war, especially from any professor or composer that was associated with the conservative Paris Conservatoire.  But the quality of the music was more than enough to outlast the negative political attacks.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Borodin - In The Steppes Of Central Asia

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) was a Russian composer who also had a career as a highly respected chemist. He wrote music for orchestra, piano and chamber music.  He belonged to a group of progressive Russian composers called The Five or The Mighty Handful who were interested in creating modern Russian music.

The symphonic poem In The Steppes Of Central Asia was written in 1880 and is dedicated to Franz Liszt who admired and promoted Borodin's music. Liszt was a big factor in getting Borodin's music heard and recognized. 

This poem paints in music the interacting between Russians and Asians in the steppe lands. A caravan of Central Asians is crossing the desert under the protection of Russian soldiers. The opening theme represents the Russians while the ornamented melody on English horn represents the Asians. These two melodies are finally heard together along with a theme in pizzicato strings that represents the plodding hoofs of camels and horses.  At the end only the Russian theme is heard.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

C.P.E. Bach - Farewell To My Silberman Clavichord

Another composition by J.S. Bach's second oldest son, C.P.E. Bach.  This is a piece for the clavichord, a type of keyboard instrument that was said to be the favorite of J.S. Bach and his son.  The name of this piece comes from the story that C.P.E Bach gave one of his favorite pupils a clavichord made by the German maker Silbermann, and as a part of the gift also wrote a piece to go along with it.

The clavichord was invented in the 14th century and is a direct ancestor of the piano.  Unlike the harpsichord that plucks the string when a key is depressed, the clavichord has a brass upright, or tangent attached to the end of the key that hits the string when the key is depressed. these tangents are shown in close up in the photo to the left.  This difference in action makes the clavichord capable of changes in levels of volume, but the range is not very large. It is an instrument that played at its loudest could never be heard in a concert hall, so it was and still is an instrument for the home.  Bach's piece is in a minor key, and unlike other pieces written in rondo form of the time, this one is rich in feeling and emotion, even sadness, as it depicts Bach's feeling of saying farewell to an old friend.

If you watch the video of the piece closely, you'll see the performer occasionally move a finger up and down on a key. This is a unique attribute to the clavichord, the ability to play vibrato on a keyboard instrument. It was a common part of clavichord technique at the time as there is a German word for it, bebung.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rimsky-Korsakov - Scheherazade

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a Russian who was an officer in the Russian Imperial Navy and Inspector Of Naval Bands. He was also a professor of composition, harmony and orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory beginning in 1871.  He composed in many musical forms, but is best known for his operas and symphonic works.

He was a master orchestrator and his composition Scheherazade is a brilliant piece for orchestra. The piece is based on The Book Of A Thousand And One Nights also known as The Arabian Nights.  Rimsky-Koraskov  wrote a short introduction that he intended for use in the score and as a program note for concerts:

"The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheharazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely."

Scheherazade is in four separate sections:

1) The Sea and Sinbad's Ship
2) The Kalendar Prince
3) The Young Prince and Young Princess
4) Festival At Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks Against A Cliff Surmounted By A Bronze Horseman.

Rimsky-Korsakov was very sparse in his explanation of the movements and the tales depicted. In later editions of the work he did away with even the titles of the movements, expressing his hope that the listener would hear the music as Oriental-themed work that evoked the sense of a fairy tale adventure.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bruckner - Symphony No. 6

Anton Bruckner (1824 - 1896) was an Austrian composer that is most well known for his Symphonies and religious music.  He studied to be a school teacher like his father, but music was too great of an interest for him to stay as a general curriculum teacher for long.

He showed great aptitude for music as a child and learned to play the organ when quite young. He became a world-renowned virtuoso organist when an adult.  He gave recitals in London in 1871 at the Royal Albert Hall and at the Crystal Palace, as well as recitals in Paris, France on the new organ in Notre Dame Cathedral.  He was the greatest improvisor on the organ in his day.  Despite his prowess at the organ, he wrote no major works for the instrument. 

Bruckner wrote nine 'official' Symphonies with the 9th being incomplete at the time of his death. He also wrote two other Symphonies which he did not deem worthy of numbering and these are commonly known as Symphony 0,  and Symphony 00.

Bruckner was obsessive about his music theory studies and took lessons until in his 40's.  He didn't receive recognition as a master composer until he was well into his 60's.  He was a disciple of Wagner, but of Wagner's music only. He had no interest or understanding of Wagner's dramatic elements.

All of Bruckner's symphonies have four movements. The Sixth Symphony is not the most performed of all the symphonies,  and the reasons are many. While it follows Bruckner's symphonic pattern, it is different in some areas than the rest.

The Sixth Symphony begins with a large first movement marked Majestoso and is in sonata form. As usual with Bruckner's use of sonata form, instead of two main themes he has three. This leads to more development and possibilities within the structure and usually lengthens his sonata movements compared to his contemporaries. The Sixth Symphony's first movement begins with what is known as the Bruckner Rhythm, a rhythmic scheme that he was fond of and used many times in his work. The Bruckner Rhythm consists of two beats and a triplet, or visa versa. The Sixth Symphony has this rhythm appear through the entire work in many forms. 

The second movement of the symphony, labeled Adagio, is indeed one of Bruckner's famous slow movements. This is the only one of his slow movements in all his symphonies that is written in sonata form.  Bruckner's adagios are beautiful music, bitter-sweet in their melody and harmony. The adagio of this symphony is no exception.

The third movement is labeled Scherzo. Unlike other Bruckner scherzos, this one's tempo is slower and the themes are more like rhythmic fragments than tunes. This is another feature of this symphony that makes it unique from other Bruckner Symphonies.

The fourth and final movement is labeled Finale. Bruckner brings back snatches of themes from the first and second movements while stating the three main themes of the Finale. The development section sees modulations through different keys until the undeniable key of A Major is brought forth.  The last part of the symphony, the Coda, sees yet more modulations and yet another massive assertion of the key of A Major which rounds out the work.

Bruckner's methods of orchestra composition reflects his knowledge and skill of the organ. He treats the orchestra as a huge organ, layering his music and 'pulling out stops' for color. His symphonies are long, and the Bruckner beginner may have a difficult time following the structure, because the music itself runs the gamut from beautiful to sublime to exciting and can also be very complex. But the rewards of getting to know Bruckner are many. His is music is such that, once you learn something about it, is all the more rich and beautiful.

Rachmaninoff - Isle Of The Dead

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1872 - 1943) was a world-renowned Russian concert pianist, conductor and composer. He left his native Russia after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Most of his compositions are for solo piano,  piano with orchestra and orchestra alone, along with some songs and chamber music.  He was regarded as one of the best pianists of his generation with a virtuoso technique and phenomenal memory.

The Symphonic Poem "Isle Of The Dead"  Opus 29 was written in 1908 and was inspired by a painting titled Isle Of The Dead by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin that he saw exhibited in Paris in 1907.  The painting depicts the ancient Greek myth of the newly dead on their way across the river Styx  that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. 

Rachmaninoff begins the piece with a time signature of  5/8. The resultant rhythm may represent the rhythm of the oars in the water as Charon, the boatsman of the myth rows the boat to the land of the dead.  In the beginning, Rachmaninoff beats this 5/8 time signature as 1-2-3-4-5, with emphasis on the first beat and the third beat. This breaks it down into essentially alternating bars of 2/8 and 3/8 time.  He then shifts the beats into 1-2-3-4-5,  and further along he has a section that shifts the beat to 1-2-3-4-5.

This shifting within the beats of the 5/8 time signature  is very subtle and it is one of the many many details of this master work that helps give the impression of bleakness, loneliness and tension that leads to the climax of the composition, and its denouement.  To add to the effect, Rachmaninoff includes the ancient Latin hymn Dies Irae (day of wrath), a hymn thought to have been written in the 12th century and was part of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Charles Alkan - Concerto For Solo Piano

Alkan's Concerto For Solo Piano is comprised of three etudes from his monumental work 12 Etudes In The Minor Keys. Alkan was not the first to use the term concerto for a work for solo keyboard. J.S. Bach's Italian Concerto written for two-manual harpsichord is the most well known example. The term most often brings to mind a piece for one instrument and an orchestra of some kind. There exists many concertos written for many different kinds of solo instruments and many different kinds of orchestral ensembles, but in every case there is a differentiation between the soloist and orchestra in the musical texture. Sometimes the soloist battles it out versus  the orchestra, sometimes the soloist is more like a member of the orchestra, and sometimes both extremes occur in the same work in varying degrees.

It can be misleading to put too much emphasis on exact determinations of what constitutes one thing or the other in classical music, at least as far as musical form goes. Imaginative composers rarely held rigidly to textbook examples. Indeed, some composers were actively using and varying musical forms before there were textbooks on the subject.  There are accepted examples of all the basic forms used in music,  but it is good to remember that these should serve as models, not laws that must be obeyed at all costs. Variation is basic to the art of music, so why would imaginative composers not do the same as far as form and structure?

So what makes Alkan's work (as well as Bach's) a valid concerto? In Bach's case, the two-manual harpsichord can provide the differentiation in sound to help create the impression of a concerted work for one instrument. But in modern times Bach's work is also played on the piano, an instrument of but one keyboard. But under the sensitive fingers of a good pianist the piano can convey a number of  differences in timbre, volume, and articulation. Add to that the creative use of the piano pedals and the instrument can bring off the solo concerto concept. Not with the depth of tone color as an orchestra, but the piano is more than capable of countless gradations from black to white and all the grays in between.  With such an expressive and versatile instrument benefiting from the writing of an imaginative, master composer such as Alkan, the solo concerto is a possibility.

Alkan was a recluse for many years and his music suffered from neglect, at least from most main stream pianists. There have always been some pianists and composers that knew of his works, but the real revival of Alkan's works began in the last years of the 1960's. With landmark recordings by the pianists Raymond Lewenthal and Ronald Smith, Alkan's music is now back in the repertoire, at least for the pianists who can play it. Many of Alkan's works are very difficult technically and musically, which no doubt led to their neglect for many years.

I. Allegro assai - The first movement is the eighth etude of  the 12 Etudes In The Minor Keys. It begins in the key of G-sharp minor with a section marked quasi trombe (like trumpets). This first theme is followed by a second contrasting theme. Following the second contrasting theme, a third theme of a more robust nature makes its entrance. A short return to the opening material rounds off what constitutes the orchestral part of the exposition.  The soloist part enters with runs up and down the keyboard and the exposition continues with the return of all three themes in expanded form. The development section of these themes runs far afield in mood and texture, and with just a little effort a good listener can begin to 'hear' the entities of soloist and orchestra take shape.  The harbinger of the recapitulation appears as a persistent G-sharp, sometimes in the treble, sometimes in the bass. The recapitulation brings back the three themes, and then a section marked quasi-tamburo (like a drum) transforms  the first and second subjects into a wildly rhythmic treatment that continues with the pianist using the third finger of each hand to hammer out a steady stream of alternating sixteenth notes in rapid tempo. The second theme appears over the sixteenth notes as it winds down to a repeat of the first theme in high chords of the treble accompanied by the bottom notes of the piano. A tremendous crescendo occurs, Alkan writes the key signature of A-flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of G-sharp major, and a short section brings back the trumpets of the beginning and the movement ends with a wide spread A-flat major chord. This first movement takes almost 30 minutes to play, consists of over 1300 measures, and taxes the technique and endurance of the pianist to the extreme. It is also a challenge musically. As if all that wasn't enough for the listener and pianist, there are two more movements to go.

II. Adagio - This is the 9th Etude from the set and as Alkan progressed by a perfect fourth through all the minor keys, it is in C-sharp minor. The opening is marked quasi-celli (like cellos). The orchestra plays a melancholy introduction to the theme that is taken up by the soloist.   A second theme is in the major and is contrast to the opening. A short section for single unaccompanied notes leads to a section of a different character all together, a somewhat light-hearted tune that leads to an impassioned, agitated repeat of the first theme which leads to yet another different section punctuated by a drum beat rhythm in the bass. The light hearted tune alternated with the drum beats until the opening theme returns once again but is soon interrupted by the drumbeats. The melancholy introduction appears, the drumbeats quietly interrupt one more time. The first two measures of the first theme are played over the quiet drumbeats. A strongly accented triple forte C-sharp minor chord widely spread between both extremes of the keyboard end the movement.

III. Allegretto alla barbaresca -  The 10th Etude from the set in F-sharp minor begins with a huge rolled chord for both hands and a 4 bar motive that appears throughout the etude, sandwiched between some incredibly different sections. The entire etude is one of movement and themes that are presented with abandon. There is an impelling forward movement in the music that is apparent even in the calmer sections. The work ends in a deluge of manic intensity and bravado in F-sharp major.

Ronald Smith is the pianist in the accompanying video. I first heard his recording of this work on long playing records many years ago. Since then there have been other recordings of the 12 Minor Key Etudes, and along with the recording by Ronald Smith I especially enjoy the recording by Jack Gibbons, an English pianist who was the first to perform all 12 Minor Key Etudes in live concert at Oxford in 1995.

Dvorak Symphonic Poem - The Water Goblin

 Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was a Czech composer best known for his nine symphonies, especially the 9th known as "From The New World", written while he was a music professor in New York City.  But he also wrote ten operas,  chamber music (more than forty works for string ensemble), for the piano and sacred music. Later in his career he also wrote five symphonic poems in the years 1896-1897:  The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wild Dove and A Hero's Song.  

The Water Goblin is a creature of European mythology, with differences in the myth according to nationality. The Czech version of the goblin  has a human body, with green skin. He's thought to be the cause of drownings, and stores the soul of the drowned victim in a porcelain cup. Some tales of the water goblin portray him as rather comical, but Dvorak used a poem based on the tale written by Karel Erben, a Czech poet, writer and collector of folk tales and songs.  The Water Goblin portrayed in Erben's poem and used by Dvorak is most certainly not comical!  A short sketch of the poem and story:

A mother warns her daughter to stay away from the nearby lake because of a dream she has had about the water goblin. The daughter ignores the warning, goes to the lake and just as she begins to do her laundry she falls in. The goblin claims her as his wife. Her existence is sorrowful in his watery kingdom, but they have a child that is the only light in her life.  She begs the Goblin to let her go see her mother one more time.  The Goblin thinks it over and reluctantly agrees but on three conditions; She mustn't kiss or embrace anyone; she must return after one day as soon as the bells ring out for Vespers; and lastly she must leave the child with him as a hostage to guarantee her return.  The woman leaves and after a sad meeting between her and her mother the evening bell tolls, but her mother holds her back and prevents he leaving, which enrages the Goblin. He knocks on the door, saying the child must be fed. The mother refuses to open the door and demands the child be left with them. The Goblin is blinded by rage, and after awhile he returns to the lake. After a violent crash during a storm, the mother and daughter open the door and find the headless body of the child on the doorstep.

Pretty gruesome stuff for sure, but such is the way of folktales sometimes. The music is some of the best Dvorak ever wrote for orchestra.  Rich in tone and orchestral color, it is a piece written by a master of the orchestra. And with the use of a little imagination, you can hear The Water Goblin cavorting through the orchestra.