Antonín Dvořák


B196, Op. 108 • “The Noon Witch”

About this work

Like each of his other four tone poems -- save only the last -- Antonín Dvorák's second orchestral tone poem, Polednice, or The Noon Witch, Op. 108, is modeled after a poem by Czech poet Karol Jaromír Erben. Dvorák's sudden urge to try his hand at true program music was so strong that he hadn't yet even finished sketching out The Water Goblin, Op. 107 -- his first symphonic poem -- when he started plotting his musical course through Erben's Polednice in mid-January 1896. The Noon Witch is, it must be said, a very attractive and justly famous piece of music; to some, it is the finest of Dvorák's tone poems. Dvorák's achievement is made all the more impressive by the realization that he took just three days to sketch the work out, and then, in February, two weeks to orchestrate it.

Erben's poem tells of the legendary Noon Witch, summoned by a mother to call her reckless and restless child to order. Unfortunately, the Noon Witch effects the fainting of the mother and the suffocation of the child; when the father returns home and wakens his wife the two discover and lament their loss. Dvorák treats the poem in a kind of continuous miniature symphonic form. The four ordinary movements of a symphony are all in place, but are played without breaks between them.

At the beginning of the opening Allegretto is introduced the happy, frolicking little motive that will be reshaped into a large portion of The Noon Witch's material; there is shortly a brief foreshadowing of the Andante sostenuto music that will form the second movement, easily dispatched by the child as he continues to horse around. Things grow very heated, and only the arrival of the actual Andante sostenuto can tame matters; but it is not a comfortable tameness, for ever within this music -- with its gripping semitone oscillations and its bizarre tune for bassoon and bass clarinet -- is the mother's threat of summoning the Noon Witch. As the child becomes unmanageable once again, the mother makes good her threat, and the Witch arrives and dances a wild dance (Allegro -- the scherzo movement) in which the happy clarinet motive of the opening is tossed about upside down. The final movement of this pseudo-symphony, Andante, is full of sharp articulations and pained rhythms: the father has returned and the tragedy is revealed -- and all the passionate pleading of the strings (maestoso, triple-forte) cannot return his child to him.