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Music and Literature

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Hello y'all!

As some of you will already know, I study literature at university. Owing to my love of language and poetry, this is what informs my passion for the [b]tone poem[/b] above all other types of music.

Unfortunately, though I think it's imperative to understand the literature behind a literary-inspired piece of music - even if you listen to the music first before searching out the relevant texts - it's too often the case that people simply aren't interested, or, in certain cases, don't have access to resources.

So, back in 2009, I started making YouTube videos of tone poems, and I thought this might be a good place to show you one, and ask you all what you think, and where I might be able to improve. I've only made 4 in the intervening years, due to university work [i]etc.[/i], but I want to take it up again.

This first example perhaps demonstrates the inaccessibility of some literature, as I am unaware of any published translations of the Czech poetry on which Dvořák based his symphonic poems - his most mature works. Thankfully, I managed to track down a curator of Czech literature at the British Library who kindly gave me her own translation, which she has been trying to get published since 2002, and have made it available via this video, as well as an accompanying article. Let me know what you think :)



I remember that when I first heard Dvořák’s symphonic poem about the infanticidal 'Lady Midday', it immediately stunned me, irrespective of the fact that I had only a vague impression of the accompanying poem’s contents. It was dark and terrifying enough for my melodramatic character. However, when I decided to explore the motifs within the piece more fully, my acquired knowledge rendered the climax unimaginably more devastating, and the work, in my mind, gained an even firmer footing as a masterpiece.

Here's a quick background: it was composed in 1896 and was inspired by the (literary) poem of the same name by Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben. Erben published a collection of ballads titled [i]Kytice z pověstí národních[/i] (trans. [i]A Bouquet of National Legends[/i]) in 1853, now considered a national classic. Comprising thirteen poems, [i]The Noon Witch[/i] ([I]Polednice[/I] - No. 4), along with [i]The Golden Spinning-Wheel[/i] ([I]Zlatý kolovrat[/I] - No. 5), [I]The Wild Dove[/I] ([I]Holoubek[/I] - No. 7), and [I]The Water Goblin[/I] ([I]Vodník[/I] – No. 9), inspired Dvořák to compose a series of symphonic poems representing their plots.

The Noon Witch herself is based on a mythological Slavic being, and Erben’s poem tells the horrific tale of an unfortunate child who does not behave himself. His mother warns him that if he continues to misbehave, the Noon Witch will come to take him away. The threat falls on deaf ears and, at the stroke of noon, the Witch - a beast whose name oughtn't be used in vain - demands to take the child. The mother screams in terror and desperately tries to protect her son but is pushed to the limit both physically and mentally by the Witch’s incessant chase. Soon afterwards, once the bells have tolled midday, the father returns home from work to find his wife unconscious, clutching the body of their lifeless son.

Though it was initially difficult to find a translation, I contacted Susan Reynolds, curator of Czech, Slovak and Lusatian literature at the British Library who completed a translation in 2002, although I believe it remains unpublished. Still, she very generously permitted me to reproduce her translation with the understanding that it may no longer be possible once it is published - I certainly hope that will be soon. So, here's the full poem in English, which you may not find anywhere else, in order to fully understand Dvořák's composition:

[b]The Noon Witch[/b]

By the bench there stood an infant,
Screaming, screaming, loud and wild;
‘Can’t you just be quiet an instant?
Hush, you nasty gipsy-child!

Now it’s noon, or just about,
Daddy’s coming home for dinner:
While I cook, the fire’s gone out -
All your fault, you little sinner!

Hush! Your cart’s here, your hussar -
Look, your cockerel! - Go on, play!’
Crash, bang! Soldier, cock and cart
To the corner fly away.

Once again that fearful bellow -
‘May a hornet come and sting you!
Hush, you naughty little fellow,
Or the Noonday Witch I’ll bring you!

Come for him, you Noonday Witch, then!
Come and take this pest for me!’ -
In the door into the kitchen,
Someone softly turns the key.

Little, brown-skinned, strange of feature,
On her head a kerchief pinned;
With a stick - crook-legged creature,
Voice that whistles like the wind!

‘Give that child here!’ ‘Lord, forgive
This sinner’s sins, my Saviour dear!’
It’s a wonder she still lives,
For see - the Noonday Witch is here!

Silent as a shadow wreathes,
The witch towards the table’s slipping:
Mother, fearful, scarcely breathes,
In her lap the child she’s gripping.

Twisting round, she looks behind her -
Poor, poor child - ah, what a fate!
Closer creeps the witch to find her,
Closer - now she’s there - too late!

Now for him her hand is grasping -
Tighter squeeze the mother’s arms:
‘For Christ’s precious torments!’ gasping,
She sinks senseless with alarm.

Listen - one, two, three and more:
The noonday bell is ringing clear;
The handle clicks, and as the door
Flies wide open, father’s here.

Child clasped to her breast, he found,
Lying in a faint, the mother;
He could hardly bring her round,
But the little one was – smothered.


The piece itself was formally premièred on 21st November 1896 in London under the conductor Henry Wood. A letter written by Dvořák to the Vienna critic Dr. Robert Hirschfeld, shortly before its performance by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter on 20th December 1896, allows us an insight into the comparative structures of the poem and its accompanying music. The letter is reproduced here so that you can piece together the motifs in the context of the whole composition.



- John Clapham, ‘Dvořák’s unknown letters on his Symphonic Poems’ in [I]Music and Letters[/I] (1975, LVI: 277-287).
- Translation provided by Susan Reynolds.
- Recommended recording: Neeme Järvi with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos, 1989).
Likes emiellucifuge, Huilunsoittaja liked this post


  1. Edward Elgar's Avatar
    Amazing! I might start enjoying Dvorák as a consequence of those videos! I'm definitely excited about the Manfred Symphony on your channel!
  2. Huilunsoittaja's Avatar
    This is really neat!

    The Water Goblin is another really cool tone poem.