So far, the nightly works we've been featuring as part of ShakespeareFest have all had a fairly direct connection to Shakespeare's work. Today's connection is admittedly a bit fuzzier, but that fuzziness is itself a testament to the success of the First Folio and its goal to establish Shakespeare as an essential component of our shared culture. By the 19th century the plays were so well known that a kind of shorthand had developed; all one had to do was say "Hamlet" or "King Lear" or "Falstaff" or "Puck" and a world was evoked with a specific mood or affect fitting those characters. Beethoven told someone who asked him if there was a specific meaning to his D minor piano sonata to go read The Tempest, and now that name is forever associated with that piece even though its composer never elaborated on what the correlation was between the sonata and the play. Even composers who wrote pieces with in which every musical detail corresponded to a line in a Shakespeare play, like Berlioz and Tchaikovsky, could also write works in which all we have to go on is the title, like Berlioz's King Lear overture and Tchaikovsky's Hamlet. You could say something similar about Schumann's Julius Caesar overture, Liszt's symphonic poem on Hamlet, and the work we're hearing tonight, the Othello overture by Antonín Dvořák. It's almost as if the title of a Shakespeare character had become like an expression marking - I wouldn't be surprised to see a piece marked Allegro con Mercutio or Adagietto quasi Ophelia. 

In any case Dvořák's Othello is the third in a triptych of overtures to which he gave the overall title of Nature, Life and Love. Nature refers to the overture called In Nature's Realm; Life refers to the Carnival overture, by far the best-known of these works; and Love refers to Othello. The three overtures share a common melody that takes on a different character in each piece, giving the aggregate a sense of unity. Dvořák conducted the entire trilogy several times on some prominent occasions, including his American debut at Carnegie Hall. He evidently thought very highly of it which he originally thought of as a single three-part work, like a symphony or suite. But in the end, he published them as three independent concert overtures. It's likely that this is what the publisher preferred and was probably a sound commercial decision, though if you ever have forty minutes to spare I highly recommend listening to the three works in succession, which creates an effect that transcends the sum of its already considerable parts.

But I imagine one reason Dvořák split them up is because the Othello overture was divisive from the beginning. Some critics praised it as far and away the greatest of the three overtures and one of Dvořák's most profound creations. Others were confounded by it and found it much less appealing and coherent than the first two. 

The problem, I think, stems from its title, or really two titles, "Othello" and "Love". It's true that the piece doesn't seem to follow a program in which each musical episode corresponds to a specific scene in the play, and that its general mood seems too dark and insufficiently sensuous to evoke feelings of love. First of all, I'm not sure we should be judging pieces solely based on whether it meets our expectations set by the title (a rose by any other name etc.) Secondly, one could make the case that the titles are appropriate, especially in the context of the triptych, which describes the cosmic drama of the universe. (If you think about it, "Nature, Life and Love" could refer to the order of creation, whether you subscribe to the Bible or the Big Bang.)

And remember that we're not talking about young impulsive lovers here, but grownups dealing with primal issues like jealousy, societal expectations, racist and misogynist attitudes, mental health issues, and just the "ordinary" challenge of maintaining a marriage and a military career. This is the point in life when it's hard to separate love from the pain and work that goes into sustaining it. 

Dvořák may not have been an Othello or a Desdemona, but he certainly knew about romantic heartbreak, he grew up in poverty, and he had experienced his own form of ethnic prejudice throughout much of his career. In order to gain a foothold in Europe's musical establishment, he had to suppress his Bohemian musical accent and conform to an established German style. The irony of this is that when he finally achieved success it was due to works in which he leaned heavily into his ethnic heritage, and the same publishers who had been rejecting pieces that were insufficiently German-sounding were now hounding him for more sets of Slavonic Dances. And yet even after he was well established, he suffered a humiliating setback in 1888 when a Vienna performance of his Stabat Mater (already one of his most popular works) was nearly derailed by a faction of anti-Czech bigots.

This is why he was so alarmed when he came to America in the 1890s and found all the "serious" composers still trying to conform to an outdated German style. And he was even more alarmed to witness the hardships Black musicians had to endure in a country in which they were clearly the dominant cultural force best positioned to develop a true American music. He met the man who would become his most important student and musical colleague in the United States, Harry Burleigh, the grandson of a slave, as he was singing spirituals while cleaning the Conservatory's halls to work off his tuition. The New World Symphony was Dvořák’s passionate plea to the US to accept that its strength lay in its cultural diversity, not its ability to warm up 20-year-old European cultural leftovers. In the last movement of the symphony we hear Dvořák's anger and prophecy over what would happen if he went unheeded, along with a grim march of determination towards the musical Promised Land.

I'm getting ahead of myself; the New World was written in 1893 while Othello was written in 1892. But the reason is that I think the New World offers us a clue as to how to approach the Othello overture. We hear a similar juxtaposition of chorale-like passages, folk-like melodies, and unbridled emotion. After all, the story of Othello, like the story of the New World, is a story both of the triumph of Black man's rise by his own agency in defiance of dehumanizing conditions, and the injustice of his tragedy. 

The overture starts with a chorale that's not unlike the well-known spiritual from the symphony's second movement; we hear in it both a vision of a promised land without prejudice and the prayer Desdemona intones just before her final fatal encounter with her husband. (Like Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, this overture seems to start at the end of the story.) The atmosphere turns menacing, and we hear the "nature" motif that ties this to the two other overtures, and a reminder that the violence that drives this story is itself a force of nature. The beginning of the fast section seems to evoke Othello's arrival by boat in Cyprus in Act II, in both the storminess of the music and a tune that sounds somewhat like a sea chanty; then we meet Desdemona in an oboe melody, and a brief passage of untroubled love between her and Othello. But then the menace returns; we hear the steady creeping influence of Iago's poisonous manipulation, and the return of the no-longer benign nature theme. These elements get musically developed in a way that's suggestive of the story, and then the chorale tune returns, a moment of piece before it ends loudly and stormily, reminding us of the human cost of this tragedy and the inevitability that the lessons will not be learned and all the same mistakes will play out again in other realms as long as humanity continues to passionately love and senselessly hate.

WETA Passport

Stream tens of thousands of hours of your PBS and local favorites with WETA Passport whenever and wherever you want. Catch up on a single episode or binge-watch full seasons before they air on TV.