Music is a powerful tool for memory. Remember the songs you sang in grade school? The pop hits of the ‘90s? The song you listened to non-stop that one summer? Your pump-up running mix last spring? As I’m sure you do, I have playlists from various times in my life that transport me back instantly to moments and phases from my past. They bring with them memories both happy and sad, and are always accompanied by varying degrees of nostalgia.
Likewise, composers often attempt to evoke the same sorts of feelings of reminiscence and melancholy in their audiences. Dvorak is a particularly good example of this, because he was so attuned to the affect of his work. Anton Dvorak was a Czech composer who lived from 1841-1904. He was known for using folk melody in his works to create a nationalistic sound, and was so adept at this that he was brought to the United States to help create a “national musical idiom” and to direct the National Conservatory of Music of America. (America at this time was suffering a bit of a musical identity crisis)
*On a bit of a tangent, his use of melodic style and timbre allowed him to write such works as the New World Symphony and the “American” String Quartet, both beautiful examples of the American nationalist style at the turn of the century. That a Czech composer could create and capture what we hear as an “American” proves how effective it is to create a specific viewpoint with the manipulation of timbre.*
In the Czech nationalist style, Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs, is comprised of seven songs and uses a different type of folk tune for the basis of each. The poems were originally written in Czech, but Dvorak had the poet, Adolf Heyduk, translate them to German because the cycle was to be premiered in Vienna. Both the Czech and German versions are in print and performed today. I’ve showcased two of the most melancholic and evocative songs below.
The first song uses motives that call to mind restlessness and sighs. It captures the mood for the cycle:
My Song Sounds of Love/ Má píseň zas mi láskou zní / Mein Lied ertönt, ein Liebespsalm
My song sounds of love
when the old day is dying;
it is sowing its shadows
and reaping a collections 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 loudly resounds of love
while unplanned storms hasten.
I’m glad for the freedom that I no longer have
a portion in the dying of a brother.
Anne Sofie von Otter (This clip has the first three songs in German)
The 4th song is considered the crux of the set, and is often taken out of context and performed on its own. It is entitled “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” a name sometimes used to describe the entire collection. The song is about the passing down of music and the memories within the tunes. It evokes these feelings of wistfulness and nostalgia even in those hearing the song for the first time.
Když mne stará matka zpívat/ Als die alte Mutter/ Songs My Mother Taught Me
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 gipsy children to play and sing!
Anne Sofie von Otter again, in German
Joan Sutherland, in English (this is particularly entertaining because of Gerald Moore’s introduction)
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, in English
(There are a ton of recordings of this fourth song because it was the most famous and popular.)
The set is gorgeous and absolutely worth a listen or two, as it is not very long. I am having a lot of trouble finding good recordings of the entire set on YouTube, and would recommend Spotify for further listening.