Recorded on 12/22/1999, uploaded on 03/01/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Antonín Dvořák was a devout Catholic his entire life, so much so that he was somewhat put off by the apparent lack of religious conviction in his great idol Johannes Brahms. Despite his strong Christian faith, Dvořák actually composed few religious works. In March 1894, a year after he had come to the United States to teach at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvořák was informed of the death of Hans von Bülow, a close friend and famous conductor, as well as the failing health of his own father half way across the world in Bohemia. In this time of sorrow, he turned to the Psalms for solace and gave utterance to his grief in the form of ten songs that make up his opus 99, known as the Biblical Songs. Like the other works to come from his stay in America, such as the “New World” Symphony and “American” Quartet, the Biblical Songs show the influence of Dvořák’s assimilation of the characteristics of Native American melodies and Negro spirituals. The set is considered by many to one of Dvořák’s finest song cycles and religious compositions. However, its rather homogenous tone is sometimes seen as an esthetic flaw.
Third in the set, “Give ear, O Lord, unto my pray” from Psalm 55, opens with pleading chords on the flattened second scale degree of E-flat major. The mood is contemplative and the voice is initially accompanied by steady, yet quiet, repeated chords as the psalmist beseechs God to hear his prayer. Dvořák’s penchant for dramatic and wide-reaching modulations comes through when the psalmist references his mourning, which for Dvořák must have been a heartfelt line of text to set to music. The music becomes lighter as both hands of the piano accompaniment move into the upper register and the psalmist desires to fly like the eagle from the raging tempest, which is given poignant musical evocation in the ominous semitone trill in the closing measures.
The following song, “God, the Lord, my Shepherd is,” is a setting of the well-known 23rd Psalm. Dvořák’s setting, in a luminous E major, begins with a single B given by the piano, a “psalm-tone” of sorts, followed by the voice’s quasi-recitative. Simple and unadorned, the melody is entirely diatonic while the accompaniment provides a hymn-like chordal background. Yet, nothing else is required for the comforting words of this beautiful psalm.
In contrast to the previous songs, the fifth song “Lord, a new song I would fashion” adopts a slightly faster tempo and more joyful tone. In C major, but beginning deceptively in F, the piano gives a lilting motif that later comes to separate each of the voice’s stanzas. Here again the melody and its accompaniment are simply with an almost hymn-like character. A small touch of drama comes with the psalmist’s finale words when the piano accompaniment adopts reiterated chords on a triplet rhythm and builds over six measures from pianissimo to fortissimo. The music then subsides in the motif of the opening bars to conclude on a soft C major chord. Joseph DuBose
Courtesy of International Music Foundation.
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