About this work
The first three of Antonín Dvorák's five orchestral tone poems were put to paper in rapid succession during early 1896. Each of these three, and for that matter the fourth (which followed after an interval of several months), takes a poem by Karel Jaromír Erben as its dramatic basis; in the case of Dvorák's virgin effort in the territory, that poem is Vodník, or, the Water Goblin. The tone poem The Water Goblin, Op. 106, composed between the first week of January and the second week of February, was not the first of this initial threesome of tone poems to be performed -- The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109, has that honor -- but it certainly didn't have to wait very long for its own premiere: on November 21, 1896 it was played by a London orchestra led by Henry Wood (not yet Sir).
Dvorák treats Erben's poem in what amounts to a rondo form, somewhat modified from the standard layout. The cruel Water Goblin is introduced in the opening Allegro vivo. We learn of a maiden and her mother in a rich Andante sostenuto. The Allegro vivo music bursts forth again as the Water Goblin snatches the poor maiden up and transports her down to his lair underneath the lake. As the unfortunate captive suffers we are provided a painfully chromatic Andante mesto come prima; she sings a lullaby (Un poco più lento e molto tranquillo), and finally convinces the Water Goblin -- now in fact her husband -- to let her go and visit her mother one last time. Her homecoming is a sad one indeed: the daughter's own child (sired by the Water Goblin) has remained down under the lake to ensure her return, and she has but one day to spend with her mother above. Still, there is real warmth to the B major Lento assai of their reunion; hardly any time has passed, however, before the Allegro vivo announces the arrival of the Water Goblin to take back his captive bride. The mother turns him away, and, true to his cruel word, he sends them the decapitated body of the daughter's child. Here the poem ends, but not the music: a grim timpani roll ushers in an Andante sostenuto coda -- music absolutely frozen with horror.