About this work
The The Golden Spinning Wheel, or Zlatý kolovrat, Op. 109, is the third of Antonín Dvorák's four 1896 orchestral tone poems on subjects taken from the poetry of Karel Jaromír Erben. Its plot, put simply, is quite ludicrous; that Dvorák should succeed in making a fine piece of music from it is a testament to the notion, oft-stated and oftener-demonstrated by composers throughout the nineteenth century, that a sensible plot line is by no means necessarily the best choice for a program-music subject. Dvorák sketched The Golden Spinning Wheel during January and February of 1896 and orchestrated it some weeks later. At its premiere in October 1896, Dvorák's critics and colleagues alike found the work too long; as a result, a number of cuts concocted by Dvorák's friend and son-in-law Josef Suk are generally made, not necessarily to the work's betterment.
Erben's Zlatý kolovrat tells the tale of a king who falls in love with a simple peasant girl. After he has invited her to his castle, her evil stepmother kills her, cuts off her feet and hands and removes her eyes, and substitutes her own daughter -- who is apparently the stepdaughter's spitting image -- in her place. Unwittingly, the king weds the evil daughter, but, fortunately, an old man stumbles across the body of the king's beloved. He sends his young lad up to the castle three times -- to exchange three items, including a golden spinning wheel, for the hands, feet, and eyes of the dead daughter -- and then proceeds to resurrect the king's beloved. The golden spinning wheel turns out to be the stepmother's and daughter's undoing: when the king's new bride begins to spin, the magic spinning wheel spins out the awful truth. The king seeks out his true beloved in the forest and the two live happily ever after, while the evil stepmother and daughter are eaten by wolves.
Dvorák's treatment of this material is very free indeed. Much of the music of The Golden Spinning Wheel really does spin, starting with the rolling cello triplets of the very opening (which are presumably intended to reproduce the gallop of the king's horse). There is a pleasing economy to the way that the horn fanfare idea that announces the king at the opening takes on new shapes as the work unfolds; the most colorful of these is the harshly dissonant version in parallel seventh chords (over an uncooperative pedal-point) that depicts part of the king's encounter with the evil stepmother and her daughter. Dvorák pulls out all the stops at the end, when the violins soar up to the heights of the reunited lovers' passion; in the final bars, as the king's fanfare is given a robust Allegro ma non troppo treatment, one can almost hear them riding off into the sunset.