Antonín Dvořák


B174, Op. 93

About this work

Antonín Dvorák didn't compose an actual tone poem until less than half a decade before the turn of the twentieth century; he did, however, dabble on the fringes of program music with the three overtures for orchestra that he called, collectively, Nature, Life and Love. The third of these -- Love -- took its dramatic basis from what might seem an unlikely source (at least if one is seeking an optimistic appraisal of romance): Shakespeare's Othello. Dvorák seems himself to have been somewhat uncomfortable with calling the Op. 93 overture Othello, and he toyed with the idea of providing a less specific title. In the end he opted to stick with Othello, but always emphasized that the connection between the music of Op. 93 and Shakespeare's work was as much in his mind as on the music-paper. The Othello Overture was composed during late 1891 and early 1892, and first performed, along with Op. 91 and Op. 92 (Nature and Life, respectively), during April 1892 in Prague.

The Othello Overture is a fine piece, from the rich pseudo-archaisms of the very opening (the impression of the Renaissance is palpable in Dvorák's archaic harmonization of the opening phrase), to the violent jealousy of the Allegro con brio that follows shortly thereafter, to the vicious murder of Desdemona (the specific moment of the murder is actually indicated by Dvorák on the score), to the fevered final bars when Othello, pushed to the edge of his sanity, forgives Desdemona and kills himself. The work is very possibly the most grim of all Dvorák's compositions -- the biting dissonance of the last bars, and in particular one moment at which we are treated to the shock of F sharp, G natural, D natural, and D sharp all at the same time -- and as a result it has never matched its immediate predecessor, the Carnival Overture, Op. 92, in popularity. However, in terms of the composer's craft and inspiration it is easily superior to that work, and the fact that its treasures are enjoyed by fewer does not mean that they are less.