Antonín Dvorák
(b.Nelahozeves, 8 September 1841; d. Prague, 1 May 1904)

The Spectre's Bride / Die Geisterbraut / Svatební košile, op. 69
Choral ballad on a poem by Karel Jaromir Erben for soprano, tenor, bass, chorus and orchestra (B. 135; 1884)


On 21 November 1883 Dvo?ák, recently catapulted to international fame through the success of his Stabat Mater, was sent an interesting letter by Alfred Littleton from the publishing house of Novello in London, asking whether he would be willing to write a secular cantata for a "big English festival" to be held in 1885. Dvo?ák, who had recently become more sensitive to his growing market value, proposed a flat fee of £200 including rights of performance in all countries, and was surprised to find his offer accepted without demur. Fresh from his first triumphant tour of England, he set to work immediately and found that the work flowed easily from his pen. As a text he chose a folk ballad by the then popular Czech poet Karel Jaromir Erben (1811-1870), whose writings would later supply the programs for several of his tone poems. The work was fully sketched in a mere seven weeks during the summer of 1884 while the composer was vacationing in his favorite cottage in Vysoká, and the finished score bears "27 November 1884" as its date of completion.

Dvo?ák immediately sensed the superior quality of his new dramatic cantata: "I believe (and you will see that I am not deceiving myself) that the work will excel in every respect those that precede it, not excepting the Stabat Mater" (letter to Göbl). Before presenting it to the English choral societies for whom it was intended, he conducted the première in Plze? on 28 March 1885 and had it performed in Prague a short while later. Finally he traveled with the new work to Birmingham, where it formed the main attraction of the city's music festival. The Spectre's Bride was bathed in advance publicity; articles on the new work and its exotic composer appeared in the leading papers of London and Birmingham, and expectations were at a peak. The performance, which Dvo?ák himself conducted on 27 August 1885, marked his greatest public triumph to date. His exaltation rings out in a letter of 2 September to his friend Zubatý: "There was such a shindy! They called me and shrieked 'Dvo?ák' without ceasing. The orchestra, chorus and audience were jubilant. The ladies' choir hemmed me in and all of them wanted to press my hand and congratulate me. I didn't know what to do." The critics were no less impressed, and soon The Spectre's Bride had become an international sensation. The next performance was given in Providence, Rhode Island, on 16 November 1885 and was quickly followed by others in Milwaukee (2 December), Chicago (6 May 1886), Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in America. Great Britain was no less enthusiastic: the work was heard in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and at St. James's Hall and the Crystal Palace in London. By the next season it was already being given in Melbourne and Montréal. As per previous agreement, the trilingual full score and vocal score were duly published by Novello, Ewer & Co. in London in 1885. In later decades The Spectre's Bride suffered the fate of all nineteenth-century choral ballads as the choral society tradition declined worldwide and changes of taste left faux-naïf folk poetry in bad odor. Yet the vividness of the writing and the brilliance of the melodies and orchestration have placed the work high in the Dvo?ák canon among the composer's many admirers.

Bradford Robinson, 2005

Performance material: Editio Bärenreiter, Prag