The Moldau

The Moldau


The Moldau is a symphonic poem (also known as a tone poem), a Romantic- period genre first created by Franz Liszt.  Symphonic poems are large-scale orchestral works based on a poetic, narrative, or pictorial idea.  A symphonic poem differs from a programmatic symphony (such as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique) in that it has only one movement.


The single movement of a symphonic poem is usually quite long and is often divided into sections of contrasting tempo and mood.  The whole is unified not only by the external program but also through the use of recurring themes presented in various melodic and rhythmic guises.  This technique of unifying a work through altered recurrences of a theme is called thematic transformation. We have already seen this technique in the idée fixe of Berlioz and the leitmotifs of Wagner.


Smetana’s greatest and most ambitious work, Má vlast (“My Fatherland”), consists of six symphonic poems, each describing an area of Bohemia.  The second and most famous of the six, The Moldau, traces the river Moldau from its origins in the Bohemian hinterland until it flows through the city of Prague.  Smetana uses an old Bohemian folk tune to represent the Moldau.  Here is Smetana’s descriptive preface to the orchestral score:


“In the shade of the Bohemian forest, two springs arise, one warm and bubbling, the other cool and calm.  Their waves, rippling gaily over the rocks, unite and glisten in the sunlight.  As the brook winds through Bohemia’s valleys, it grows into a mighty river, the Moldau. Through dense pine forests it flows, from which are heard the gay sounds of a hunt.  It flows through verdant meadows and lowlands where a peasant wedding is being celebrated with jubilant song and dance.  In the mysterious stillness of the night, wood and water nymphs revel on the river’s moonlit surface.  Fortresses and castles, projecting skyward on the surrounding slopes, remain as mute witnesses of the bygone glories and splendors of knighthood.  The river, now confined by rocky crags, foams as it plunges noisily through the valley.  After the churning St. John Rapids, the Moldau flows in majestic peace toward Prague where it is welcomed by the noble ancient fortress of Vyšehrad and then, broadening out, vanishes into the distance.”




As you listen, please briefly answer the following prompts:


00:03 Section A: The Sources of the Moldau


The Moldau River has two sources.  How is this depicted in the music?  What musical devices/gestures suggests a flowing river?


1:07-3:02 Section B: The Moldau Theme


The Moldau Theme is stated several times.  How would you describe this melody?


3:03 Section C: Forest Hunt


How does this music suggest/portray the hunt?


4:06 Section D: Peasant Wedding


What about this music suggests a peasant wedding?


5:31 Section E: Moonlight and Dance of the Nymphs


From Smetana’s preface to the work: “In the mysterious stillness of the night, wood and water nymphs revel on the river’s moonlit surface.  Fortresses and castles, projecting skyward on the surrounding slopes, remain as mute witnesses of the bygone glories and splendors of knighthood.”  How is this portrayed in the music?


(?) Section B1: The Moldau Theme


Please indicate by track time when the Moldau theme returns.


9:14 Section F: The St. John Rapids


How does Smetana suggest the rapids?


(?) Section B2: The Moldau Broadens Toward Prague


We hear now the first part of the Moldau theme stated only once, leading without transition to the final Vyšehrad theme. Please indicate by track time when the Moldau theme returns.


11:02 Section G: The Vyšehrad


The Vyšehrad is an ancient castle overlooking the Moldau River as it runs through the capital city of Prague.  How does Smetana create this imagery?


And finally, what makes this a nationalist work?



Example 2: Symphony #5/1st movement (excerpt) by Gustav Mahler


Gustave Mahler (1860-1911) was one of the Post-Romantic composers, coming to artistic maturity at the end of an era.  It also marked a societal turning point as the old political and religious orders disintegrated, leaving in its wake a sense of dread and pending catastrophe.  Mahler’s pessimism was furthered by many personal sorrows: his upbringing at the hand of an abusive father, the relentless anti-Semitism that hounded him everywhere, and the death that stalked his family (he would lose 7 brothers and sisters, as well as one of his own children).


For many, Mahler’s troubled, angst-ridden voice speaks eloquently to today’s world. Conductor Benjamin Zander sums it up very handsomely:


“At the heart of his music lies a deep and dynamic struggle between innocence and experience, idealism and brutal reality, affirmation and denial. Though he was in part a Romantic and an idealist, he strode courageously into the twentieth century, riddled with doubt and perplexity, ill at ease in an unfriendly cosmos.”




As you listen, please briefly answer the following prompts:


How would you describe the overall mood/feeling of this work? How is this mood created?

Please describe the opening of the work (00:32-00:56). (Notice the short-short-short-long rhythm, reminiscent of the fate motif in Beethoven’s 5th)

Now describe the first melodic material (1:40-2:20). Which instruments carry this melody?

Please describe section 5:41 to 8:02. Where is the high point? What idea does Mahler bring back at the end?

Do you like or dislike this piece? Why or why not?

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