About this work
At a time when Dvorák was being tempted to write opera in German for Vienna and Dresden came one of his most nationalistic works, the Hussite Overture.
The overture was composed at the request of the Prague National Theatre, to accompany a projected trilogy on the subject of the Hussite period. While the drama never saw completion, the Overture was premiered on November 18, 1883, in celebration of the opening of the newly-built National Theatre, two years after a disastrous fire had destroyed the original.
The Hussite wars were both a defining moment and one of the blackest periods in Czech history. They erupted after religious reformer John Hus was burned at the stake and Protestants and Puritans joined in a fierce revolt. A protest against corruption and landowning practices within the church as well as an assertion of Slavonic national pride, the wars waged on for a dozen years before the Church eventually made concessions.
The overture is clearly modeled on the sketches for the trilogy, expressing the "origin of the Hussite movement" in the introduction, "the Hussite wars" in the exposition and development, and the "restoration of peace after the wars" in the recapitulation and coda. Dvorák's choice of keys was particularly shaped by the underlying program, beginning in C major for the introduction, moving to C minor and E flat major for the exposition, and returning to an affirmative C major for the recapitulation.
Two melodies said to be sung by the Hussite warriors as they marched into battle bearing the sacred chalice are incorporated: the first, a Hussite chorale, Ye who are the warriors of God serves as the main subject; the second, a portion of a thirteenth-century St. Wenceslas chant forms the second theme. The introduction contains a processional theme of the composer's own, although it is clearly modeled after the St. Wenceslas chant. Dvorák's use of the Hussite chorale, long an emblem of national pride for the Czech people, was a particularly deft choice. Prior to the recapitulation, it sounds as if it is off in the distance, played by muted horns in the remote key of B major.