Vítězslav Novák: Slovak Suite
Composed in 1903 after Czech composer, Vítězslav Novák, visited bordering country Moravia in the early 1900s. Inspired by the Slovak folk tunes and the Moravian countryside, Novák began work on his orchestral suite. The music takes the listener through the lens of Novák’s travels as he musically describes the different scenes he saw, the music he heard and the experiences he had. Slovak Suite is one of the composer’s most popular works, though it is not performed live that often.
Set into five contrasting movements, Novák explores a range of different scenes of the Moravian landscape. The suite is composed for a small orchestra with added harp, organ, but no percussion.
Movement I – At Church
The extended opening movement subtitled At Church shines light on the country church. During this movement Novák also incorporates an organ to really give the listener the feel of a church. For most of this movement Novák focuses on rich strings and harp, who carry the pastoral melody throughout its journey in this movement. As the climax is built up the strings reach their higher registers which creates a heavenly texture paired with the sparkling harp. The organ properly bolsters the orchestra and adds a completely new dimension to the music. A small solo from the organ cements this before the main climax of the movement is reached. Novák also scored a depiction of church bells, which is quite something considering no percussion was scored for the suite.
Movement II – Children’s Scene
Children’s Scene is made up of a playful melody and a lullaby. The bouncy opening theme is jovial and light on its feet. The quick melodies dart across the orchestra with Novák’s rich textures being showcased once more. The central section is a lullaby which sees the tempo slow down and woodwind soloists emerge. This offers some slight relief from the playful theme, but this does not last for long before the jaunty melody returns in full glory.
Movement III – The Lovers
The tender melody, first played by a solo clarinet, opens the lyrical third movement. As the strings enter the texture begins to open up and the melody flourishes. Accentuated by woodwind and horns, the melody is passed around the orchestra, with the solo clarinet taking the lead. To contrast, the middle section of this movement is jaunty and playful and starts with a quick change in tempo. The intricate layering of voices within the orchestra creates a playful interlude before the opening clarinet solo returns. This movement concludes quietly, with the strings and harp leading.
Movement IV – The Ball
The Ball depicts the village festival which is full of joy and excitement. Borne out of traditional folk dances and rhythms, the fourth movement really highlights Novák’s inspirations. Lots of unison playing is heard in this movement, with the bold strings presenting their rhythm before the woodwind plays theirs. A solo violin also plays the main theme, which again adds to the folk element of the movement. The dance at the ball becomes faster in tempo which makes the music more intense very quickly. After a reprise of a theme similar to that of the first movement, The Ball concludes with a rush of excitement.
Movement V – The Night
The finale movement, which is also the longest of all five movements, is similar in style to the opening movement. The slow-moving introduction sees the rippling harp representing the moonlight as the rich strings and pulsating woodwind represent the pools of water. The movement is rich with harmony and texture that Novák slowly builds up over the course of the movement. The main theme is heard in a number of nuanced variations which sees the composer play with the orchestration. Glimmers of the moonlight are heard through the harp and woodwind, which create a sparkle over the orchestra.
Memories from movements passed rear their heads as themes from The Church and The Lovers come to the forefront. Throughout the movement the texture becomes richer and more dramatic, which leads to the big climax that sees the orchestra explode with colour. As the climax fades away, The Night slowly begins to fade into the distance, and we are left with mere memories of our time in Moravia.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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