“Othello,” Concert Overture, Op. 93 (1892)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Antonin Dvorák came to the United States in 1892, he was hailed as the moral equivalent of Christopher Columbus. The second most distinguished European composer (after Brahms) had come to America to conquer it and establish a tradition of music-making through the vehicle of the National Conservatory in New York, of which Dvorák was the new Director. Shortly after his arrival he conducted a concert that featured a new work consisting of three overtures: In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello, Opp. 91-93 respectively. Of these three, only Carnival has achieved a regular place in the repertoire. Since we are used to hearing only the Carnival overture as a free-standing piece (a circumstance not dissimilar to the way we hove been accustomed to hearing Smetana’s Moldau, which itself is part of a larger work), we have lost sight of Dvorák intent to create a three-step narrative that led the listener from the appreciation of nature and its essence to the joys of life and then to the tragedy created by those emotions that threaten the equanimity of nature and the happy soul of the human being so ably depicted in the Carnival overture. The last part of this three-part work, the one that depicts how human beings ruin what nature and life have given them, is, of course, Othello. It was begun in December 1891 and completed a few months later. As did Tchaikovsky in Hamlet, Dvorák in Othello utilized sonata form as a starting point. Also like Tchaikovsky, Dvorák rapidly encountered the compositional problem of how to respond appropriately to the dramatic essence of Shakespeare’s play. Some commentators have tried to downplay the parallelisms to the play evident in this overture, citing that Dvorák thought about different titles, including Love and The Tragic. But John Clapham argues convincingly that Dvorák made pencil notations to indicate the parallels between the dramatic action in Shakespeare’s drama and the music. In fact, there are eleven such indications. Curiously, they begin to occur a little more than a third of the way into the piece. Jealousy provided the composer with the most obvious musical focus. There are, in addition, allusions to Wagner and a reference to the Requiem Mass, which Dvorák had completed just a year earlier, in 1890. In this overture Dvorák attempts a musical characterization of Othello and Desdemona; of love and the emotions that are central to the drama. A small but remarkable detail deserves mention with respect to the Othello overture. As is well known, Brahms was a great admirer of Dvorák. While in America, Dvorák resumed his business relationship with Simrock, who was also Brahms’s publisher. In order to facilitate the publication of Dvorák’s new music, Brahms offered to do the proof-reading and to correct the galleys. Othello is one of the works for which Brahms did the editing and which he singled out with particular admiration.