Do you know Capitaine Fracasse? Imagine France in the 17th century under the reign of Louis XIII. A wet and windy night in the Gascogne, a derelict mansion, cut off from the rest of world. In the kitchen, the only heated room, the fire is dying down. The Baron de Sigognac, a solitary and impoverished young nobleman, muses about his sad fate, when a bunch of comedians knocks at his door and seeks shelter. During the night, he feels he has to make a decision. He can continue to mourn the past glory of his family, stay in the old mansion with his faithful servant Pierre and die from poverty. Or he can give his life a meaning he never anticipated and join the comedians assuming a new name: Capitaine Fracasse.
This wonderful novel, written in a truly Romantic spirit by Théophile Gautier in the late half of the 19th century, moves me every time I read it. He takes me on a fantastic journey, a little like Harry Potter. Gautier’s novel combines noble feelings, melancholy, ardent fights, passionate love and occasionally a good laugh in the most sublime manner. And I saw the beginning of the novel clearly before my eyes when I recently listened to Anton Dvorak’s Rhapsody in A minor, Op. 14. The piece condenses all the emotions of Gautier’s story, its rich colours, its tension, its joy and desperation.
Dvorak wrote the rhapsody in 1874 and had conceived it as one of several symphonic poems, inspired by Franz Liszt’s works of this genre. Dvorak wanted to combine the dramatic, melodic ideas of his Czech homeland with the tone painting as it had been made popular by Liszt.
1874 was a good year for the composer, his creativity and his energy knew no limits. He had been married a year before and enjoyed a stable relationship with his young wife. His third symphony, finished in 1873, had emboldened him to quickly write up his Symphony No. 4 a year later. He was full of ideas and the success of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies pushed him to try this form – successfully, as I would like to say. Four years later he would come back to this genre and write a full cycle: the Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op. 45.
“Having a lovely ideas is nothing extraordinary”, Dvorak opined. “To transform it into something big is much more difficult.” The French biographer Guy Erismann speaks of Dvorak’s thirst for lovely melodies. The nationalist feelings moving both Dvorak and his predecessor Bedrich Smetana, provided not only the ideas for a distinct music style, but also the means – the Czech folk heritage – to transport their message. Erismann speaks of the mystery around Dvorak’s compositional method. “It seems that through magic the harmony takes its colours all by itself, adjusting to the melodic and rhythmic fluctuation of [Dvorak’s] inspiration.
Anton Dvorak’s music makes me happy at all times. It fills even the greyest day with colours, warmth and joy. It lets my fantasy travel like Gautier’s “Capitaine Fracasse” and its melodies charm my ears just as Gautier’s wonderful French.
The Rhapsody in A minor has been recorded by the Slavonic Philharmonic Orchestra.
© Charles Thibo