Antonín Dvořák: The Water Goblin


Antonín Dvořák composed his symphonic poem, The Water Goblin in 1896. He was inspired by Karel Jaromír Erben’s collection of poems under the title Kytice. Out of the six poems in this set, Dvořák uses four for the basis of The Water Goblin. The piece premiered in London in November 1896.


The Music

Loosely following Erben’s story Vodník, the tale tells of a cheeky water goblin who traps drowning souls in upturned teacups. A synopsis of the four verses from Erben’s poems are seen below:

  • A water goblin is sitting on a poplar by the lake, singing to the moon and sewing a green coat and red boots for his wedding soon to come.


  • A mother tells her daughter of a dream she had about clothing her daughter in white robes swirling like foaming water and with pearls of tears hiding deep distress around her neck. She feels this dream was a presentiment and warns her daughter not to go to the lake. Despite the mother’s warnings, the daughter is drawn to the lake as if possessed and leaves for the lake to do her laundry. The moment she hands down her first garment into the water, the bridge on which she was sitting collapses. As the water engulfs her she is abducted by the malevolent water goblin who lives there.


  • He takes her to his underwater castle and marries her with black crayfish for the groomsmen and fishes for her bridesmaids. After the birth of their first child, the abducted wife sings it a lullaby, which enrages the water goblin. She tries to calm him down and pleads to be allowed ashore to visit her mother once. He gives in on three conditions: She is not to embrace a single soul, not even her mother; she has to leave the baby behind as a hostage; and she will return by the bells of the evening vespers.


  • The reunion of mother and daughter is very sad but full of love. When evening falls the distraught mother keeps her daughter and forbids her to go even when the bells are ringing. The water goblin becomes angry, forsakes his lair in the lake and thumps on the door ordering the girl to go with him because his dinner has to be made. When the mother tells him to go away and eat whatever he has for dinner in his lair, he knocks again, saying his bed needs to be made. Again the mother tells him to leave them alone, after which the goblin says their child is hungry and crying. To this plea the mother tells him to bring the child to them. In a furious rage the goblin returns to the lake and through the shrieking storm screams that pierce the soul are heard. The storm ends with a loud crash that stirs up the mother and her daughter. When opening the door the mother finds a tiny head without a body and a tiny body without a head lying in their blood on the doorstep of her hut.


Dvořák follows Erben’s text closely throughout, producing an illuminating and descriptive symphonic poem. The opening water goblin theme is set as a four-bar phrase which is repeated. The light-heartedness of the theme is seen by Dvořák’s use of the upper woodwind and the amount of decorative additions to the theme. The three repeated notes of this theme become one of the most important aspects of the whole piece, with the phrase returning at vital points of the story.

The excitement heard within the music is accentuated by the bold percussion, who add both a foundation to the sound as well as unique decoration. As the cor anglais leads the orchestra into the next section, the dynamic of the music and the character completely changes. The daughter is introduced with a pure melodic theme, with Dvořák adding a triangle hit to represent the twinkle in her innocent eyes. The important three-note motif creates the basis of this theme, with the lingering character of the goblin always being present. 

 A shift to B minor initiates the third section, which turns the mood very sombre. The theme here is also based on three notes, although now the rhythm has been mirrored. Dvořák’s use of chromatic harmony is at the forefront of this section, with rich textures also adding to this effect. The quick changes in mood add to the suspense of The Water Goblin, with Dvořák handling these changes seamlessly. 

The big shift to B major links back to the feelings of the daughter, who is now represented by the timpani. The quiet solo from the timpani is an interesting choice by the composer, who purposefully writes the orchestra louder than the soloist. Once again the three-note theme returns, this time as a new variation. The shrill excitement of this shift in character injects some real excitement into the music, which is a stark difference to the minor sections.

After another spritely section, the music builds up tension before the final section that concludes this exciting work. A duo of clarinets play the opening goblin theme, which acts as a domino effect for the woodwinds. After a rousing build up, The Water Goblin ends quietly after the daughter has drowned and the goblin is rejoicing in its own solace. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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