Horatio Parker, Dream-King and His Love, Op. 31

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 15, 1863, in Auburndale, MA
Died December 18, 1919 in Cedarhurst, NY
Composed in 1891
Premiered March 30, 1893, at Madison Square Garden in a concert for the winners of a National Conservatory of Music competition with Parker conducting the Conservatory Chorus and Anton Seidl’s orchestra
Performance Time: Approximately 12 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (triangle), 1 harp, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, chorus, and tenor soloist

Horatio Parker is mostly remembered today as Charles Ives’ teacher at Yale, yet he was an important and prolific composer in his own time. He was one of the most prominent American Romantics whose Latin oratorio, Hora novissima, was performed with great success not only in the United States but in England as well.

Parker had studied with George Chadwick in Boston and Joseph Rheinberger in Munich. Before his appointment at Yale, he briefly taught at the National Conservatory in New York under the directorship of Antonín Dvořák, and it was there that his cantata Dream-King and His Love won first prize in a composition contest, with Dvořák as the chief adjudicator.

The text of this cantata is an anonymous English translation of Traumkönig und sein Lieb by Emanuel von Geibel (1815–84), a German poet whose works were set to music by Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf (among many others). A fair maiden slumbers in her room; as she is wooed by the handsome Dream-King, the room turns into a resplendent palace where she is made Queen and receives her King’s caresses. But then, alas!, dawn breaks and the lovely vision vanishes, leaving the maiden in a state of great distress.

The cantata takes us, in quick succession, from an ordinary bedroom to a magnificent fairyland; a solemn marriage ceremony and a tender wedding night are followed by a rude awakening. The text offered Parker many opportunities for sumptuous word-painting. The lyrical scenes are accompanied by lush chromatic harmonies; the magical transformation is represented by lively rhythmic motifs and the royal wedding, appropriately, by a polonaise. The closing moment—the evanescence of the dream—is fashioned into a major dramatic climax, lest we take the story too lightly. For the Romantic imagination, where dreams are more important than the real world, and the darkness of the night preferable to the light of day (as in Tristan), the loss of such a precious moment is truly tragic. Parker captured these tragic feelings perfectly in his music, which earned great accolades at its premiere in New York on March 30, 1893.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.