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The A-Z of Classical Music #4 - Dvorak's Noonday Witch

Dvorak's The Noon Day Witch - #4 in Goldmine's A-Z of Classical Music.

A twenty-six part series highlighting the works and recordings that every collector needs to own.

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(composer) Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

(title) The Noonday Witch (Polednice) opus 108 (1896)

(recommended version) Tone Poems, Decca SXL 6543 (1972)

With the London Proms season now in full swing, few of the remaining highlights are so eagerly awaited (by Classical Gas, at least) than September 4’s scheduled performance of Dvorak’s The Noonday Witch, by the Vienna Philharmonic/Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

Dvořák’s tone poems are often overlooked today, subsumed beneath the weight of his “established masterpieces” -Symphony No.9/from the New World in particular. Three pieces written around tales from Karel Jaromír Erben’s Kytice collection, however, are among the most characteristic and perhaps personal of all Dvořák’s compositions.Their brevity (The Noonday Witch lasts around fourteen minutes) should not even be considered.

Based on original Slavic mythologies, and composed following Dvořák’s return to Bohemia from his sojourn in America, the tone poems are indivisible from the rising currents of nationalism that were then at large in a land still enfolded within the Austrian empire - The Water Goblin (Vodnik) and The Golden Spinning Wheel (Zlaty Kolovrat) were the witch’s companions, and both are powerful indeed.

The Noonday Witch, however, has an aura… a creeping sense of danger, even horror… that few pieces of music have ever captured.Polednice herself is certainly one of the most striking figures in the Slavic pantheon, a woman - sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard - who appears within a swirl of wind just as the sun reaches its zenith. Hence, therefore, her other best-known designation, as Lady Midday.

The workers (for Bohemia was primarily an agricultural nation) will be hard at their labors in the fields - or, at least, they ought to be.Should somebody appear to be slacking, however, Polednice will approach. Sometimes she will engage them in conversation, sometimes she will offer them a refreshing drink.And if the worker should accept either kindness, she will remove their head.

Most modern interpretations see Polednice as the personification of heatstroke.Others, however, find darker shadows behind her - author Gemma Files, for example, whose 2016 novel Experimental Film places a most vengeful Polednice front and center of the action.

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Dvořák, too, saw her as something more than an over-enthusiastic team leader; the legend as told in Kytice concerns a disobedient child whose mother warns him that, should he not behave, Polednice will come and carry him off.She means it in the same spirit as parents the world over, when they warn their offspring of some ghastly bogeyman.

On this occasion, however, the Noonday Witch does appear, and she demands the child.The mother resists, first running with Polednice in hot pursuit, and then clasping the boy to her body.They struggle and, only when she faints, still clutching her son, does Polednice depart.She has what she came for - the mother’s grasp was so strong that the boy suffocated in her arms.

Composed for four horns, three trombones; a pair each of flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons and trumpets; tuba, timpani, bass drum, piccolo, triangles, cymbals and glockenspiel, Dvořák’s music follows the action exquisitely; get your timing right as you read, and everything, from the tolling of the noonday bell that heralds Polednice’s arrival, to the tumult of the final, fatal, battle, is there.The boy is a cheeky oboe, the witch a bass clarinet.Conflicting time signatures measure the chase sequence.It’s breathtaking.

Henry Wood was responsible for the piece’s world premiere, in London in November 1896.Since that time, there has never been a shortage of recordings of The Noon Witch.Zdeněk Chalabala led the Czech Philharmonic through an excellent rendering in 1962; Neeme Järvi conducted the Scottish National Orchestra in 1987; Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker were recorded in 1994; and so forth.It’s Dvorak; it sometimes feels as though everyone’s had a go.

István Kertész and the London Symphony Orchestra, however, offered up what many view as the definitive recording, as part of a decade long project to record Dvořák’s entire repertoire.This in turn has more recently been released as an extravagant nine CD box set, that also includes a single blu-ray featuring all the music in one continuous high fidelity (but not, sadly, multi-channel) program.

All of Kertész’s Dvorak recordings are recommended; any should be picked up if you can find them (just look for those so distinctive Bruegel artwork sleeves).But if you had to choose just one for your collection… do yourself a favor and make nice with the Noon Witch.It’s the middle of August and it’s hot outside.Who knows what could happen when next the clock strikes midday?

Don't forget to check out the other picks in this series:

Cecile Chamanade - Callirhoe

Bela Bartok - Concerto for Orchestra

Thomas Arne - Judgment of Paris