Saturday, March 7, 2015

Dvořák - Cigánské Melodie (Gypsy Songs) Op. 55

Antonín Dvořák's music didn't become known outside of his native Bohemia until he entered and won the Austrian State Prize contest in 1877, a competition that awarded a stipend to the winner.  Dvořák not only benefited from the prize money (which went far in helping to alleviate his condition of near poverty) but members of the panel of judges of the competition helped make his works known world-wide. One of those members was Johannes Brahms who recommended Dvořák's compositions to his publisher Simrock. With a music publisher's eye for sales, Simrock commissioned Dvořák to compose a set of dances similar to Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Dvořák filled the commission with the successful Slavonic Dances in 1878, which were played across Europe and the United States.

Hot on the heels of this great success and his new international reputation Dvořák wrote Cigánské Melodie (Gypsy Songs), a set of seven songs set to the poetry of Czech poet Adolph Heyduk. The songs were written in 1880 for  Gustav Walter, the popular tenor of the Vienna State Opera. Heyduk wrote a translation of the poems in German for Dvořák in deference to Walter, and a version of the songs using the original Czech language was made later.
Adolph Heyduk

There was something of a fad for gypsy music for much of the 19th century, although what was called gypsy music at the time was more of an idealized mixture of European folk music with a few exotic gypsy motifs thrown in.  Dvořák's Gypsy Songs owe more to Czech and Slovak folk songs than authentic gypsy music as well. But the freedom of gypsy life is in the songs and serves as a representation of the struggles for freedom of the Czech people from the repressive Austrian government of the time.

I want to thank Anna Matjas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser for extending permission to include their translation of the Czech texts:

1) Ma pisen zas mi laskou zni  (My song resounds with love) 
The piano opens with measured tremolos in thirds in the right hand that lead to rolled chords that accompany the vocalist. A middle section in major mode provides contrast before the piano repeats the opening and ends in the home key of G minor -
 My song resounds with love when the old day is dying;
it is sowing its shadows and reaping a collection of pearls.
My song resonates with longing while my feet roam distant lands.
My homeland is in the distant wilderness—my song stirs with nationalism.
My song reverberates with love, while unplanned storms hasten.
I rejoice in the freedom that I no longer have a part in the dying of a brother.
translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

2) Aj! Kterak trojhranec (Ah! My three-cornered bell)
The three-cornered bell is actually a triangle -
Ah! Why is my three-cornered bell ringing so passionately?
As a gypsy song -- when death is imminent -- the death of a gypsy
brings an end to song, dance, love and all concerns!
translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

3)  A les je tich kolem kol (The forest is quiet all around)
A simple accompaniment gently plays as the singer unwinds a beautiful melody -
The forest is quiet all around; only the heart disturbs the peace.
As black smoke gushing, tears flow down my cheeks and so they dry.
They need not dry—let other cheeks feel them!
The one who can sing in sorrow will not die, but lives and lives on.
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

4)  Kdyz mne stara matka (Songs my mother taught me)
The most well-known song in the set, this song is played regularly in vocal recitals and the melody has been arranged for many different solo instruments.  A distinctive feature of this song is the time signature of 2/4 for the soloist while the piano is written in 6/8 -
When my old mother taught me to sing,
Strange that she often had tears in her eyes.
And now I also weep, when I teach Gypsy children to play and sing.
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

5)  Struna naladena (The string is taut!)
The string is taut—young man turn, spin, twirl!
Today reach the heights, tomorrow down again and
after tomorrow, at the Holy Table of the Nile.
The taut string is stretched—turn young man—turn and twirl!
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

6)  Siroke rukavy (Wide sleeves)
Wide sleeves and broad trousers give more freedom than a robe of gold.
The robe of gold constricts the chest and the song within the body dies.
He who is happy -- his song blooms with the desire that the
whole world would lose its taste for gold.
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

7)  Dejte klec jest`rábu ze zlata (Given a cage of gold)
Given a cage to live in, made of pure gold,
the Gypsy would exchange it for the freedom of a nest of thorns.
Just as a wild horse rushes to the wasteland, seldom bridled or reined in,
so too the Romani nature has been given eternal freedom!
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

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