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Antonín Dvořák

Songs My Mother Taught Me, arr. for violin and piano

May 12, 2024: Chee-Yun, violin; Alessio Bax, piano

Dvořák composed his Gypsy Songs, op. 55, in the first two months of 1880 for Gustav Walter, an admirer of his songs and a tenor at the Vienna Court Opera. In Walter’s honor, he set the songs in German, in a translation made expressly for this purpose by poet Adolf Heyduk, author of the original Czech poems. Nicolaus Simrock published the songs with German and English words later that year and issued another edition the following year with the Czech added. Some were performed separately in February 1881, but it’s not clear when all seven were first performed as a group. The song cycle has become Dvořák’s most successful.

The songs display a number of characteristic Gypsy features, though all of the melodies are original Dvořák. The most famous of the set is No. 4, known in the English-speaking world as “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” but whose first line is better translated “When my old mother taught me to sing.” Here Dvořák gently pits the poignant melody in 2/4 meter against the 6/8 meter of the accompaniment and masterfully alters the music of the second verse enough to create a poignant peak. His expressive simplicity adds a wonderful dimension to the poet’s tearful, loving memories of his mother, carrying on her legacy as he teaches his own child those same songs.

“Songs My Mother Taught Me” has taken on a purely instrumental life as well as a vocal one, with myriad arrangements for various combinations. Renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler often played his own transcription for violin and piano, first publishing it in 1914 and making several recordings, perhaps the earliest for a ten-inch single-faced Victor disc in January 1916.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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