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Dvorak's Biblical Songs, Op. 99: A Concise Guide To Performance.

DVORAK'S BIBLICAL SONGS, OP. 99, composed in 1894, an intensely personal work in the composer's oeuvre, provides an example of his mastery of the nuances of the Czech language to reinforce the meaning of the text. The Biblical Songs present a challenge to many vocalists in that they require comprehension of Czech pronunciation, a language that is not a common study for most vocal students. This article will provide a concise background on the work, as well as tools to prepare a performance of the cycle, including basic rules of Czech pronunciation and expression.

At the time when Dvorak composed the songs, he was in an emotionally turbulent state. Already mourning the recent deaths of dear friends Charles Gounod (October 18, 1893), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (November 6, 1893), and Hans Von Billow (February 12, 1894), he was living and working in New York, feeling nostalgic for his homeland, when he heard the news that his father was on his deathbed. In 1894, Dvorak set aside his work on the Piano Suite in A major to begin composing the songs. Michael Beckerman, in his book on Dvorak's time in America, wrote of the Biblical Songs, "The song cycle, often dark and chromatic, appears as a subtle exploration of the composer's inner world." (1) According to Beckerman, the cycle is an example of "a simple, strong man struggling to understand his life and fate." (2) Given the losses he suffered along with being far from home, it appears that Dvorak composed this cycle to commune with God and reaffirm his faith in the wake of such profound sorrow.

During the course of his career, Dvorak wrote few religious pieces; about five percent of his works were composed on liturgical subjects, which is surprising since Dvorak was raised Catholic and remained deeply religious throughout his life. Dr. Josef Zubaty, a great admirer and biographer of Dvorak, wrote, "A characteristic of Dvorak's nature was his piety... which was rooted in his own heart... Dvorak was convinced to the depths of his being that over the world there watches a higher power which directs everything... and he was devoted to that power with fervor and gratitude." (3) In spite of his religious upbringing, Dvorak found liturgical music challenging to compose. John Clapham notes that "Dvorak was not as much at ease in composing the Christian music for St. Ludmilla as he was in writing the pagan music, which suggests that he found it more difficult to compose religious music, unless he had a really good cause to do so, and entirely suitable words to set." (4)

Several of his religious works had specific impetus for their composition. He began work on the Stabat Mater, considered by Clapham to be "the work of a sincere and pious Catholic," (5) in 1876, only a few months after the death of his two-day-old daughter, Josefa. Once he was left childless after the successive deaths of his son and his eleven-month-old daughter in 1877, he interrupted work on the Variations and some smaller works to prepare the full score of the Stabat Mater. Other spiritual works, such as his Requiem, were not composed as the result of a specific loss or in contemplation of his own eventual demise, but instead were written to reaffirm his relationship with God. Referring to these works, Clapham wrote, "it is probable that as a sincere and devout Catholic he felt called upon to testify to his faith in God... through his art... he had given musical expression to his belief in Christ... and in God." (6) Similarly, his Mass in D Major had no specific tragedy as impulse for the composition, but Dvorak himself wrote of the mass, "I think it will be a work which will fully answer its purpose... Faith, hope and love to God Almighty and thanks for the great gift of being enabled to bring this work in the praise of the Highest." (7) These examples serve to emphasize that Dvorak felt that it was his duty to express his faith in God through his musical gift.

Dvorak's compositional process for the Biblical Songs is more akin to that of his Stabat Mater. Paul Stefan writes about Dvorak's Stabat Mater,
It was only natural, therefore, that his suffering and painful search
for consolation in the Eternal, should be just as simple and
convincing... He is guided, out of his deep feeling for Nature, by an
undeviating faith in the Creator of all things visible for the
enjoyment of man and hence... of that which brings sorrow to man. (8)

A similar suffering prompted Dvorak to turn to scripture for consolation in composing the Biblical Songs, specifically to the book of Psalms in the Bible of Kralice. The Bible of Kralice was the first complete translation of the Protestant Bible from the original languages into Czech. The Protestant Bible consists of thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, totaling sixty-six books. This differs from the seventy-three books of the Catholic Bible because it excludes the seven deuterocanonical books. The Bible of Kralice is known for its eloquence.

"The vitality and poetic beauty of the Bible of Kralice is one of the great treasures of Czech literature, easily the equal of the roughly contemporary King James Version of the Bible." (9)

Many Psalms are considered to have been written by King David about his relationship with God, and it is understandable that Dvorak turned to them for solace when he was attempting to understand his own ever-changing relationship with God in the face of tragedy. "Psalm" translates from Greek and Hebrew as "song" or "hymn," and the poetic nature of the texts naturally lends them to musical setting. Psalms are often considered a comforting section of the liturgy and a text from which to draw strength. Since Dvorak was a devout Catholic, he would have grown up with these psalms and known them well. For the song texts, he chose specific lines from particular Psalms, but he altered them throughout the cycle. According to Daniel Jacobson, "he cleverly molded them into song texts that had more personal meaning for him than the original Psalms." (10) The order and choice of words inform the decisions any composer makes in setting text to music and composing the accompaniment. On the choice of text, Beckerman suggests "The composer chose not only the psalms himself but fastened on specific verses... Dvorak chose precisely the texts he wanted to use," (11) and of the third song of the cycle, "That this paradise is delicately poised between the fear of death on one side and a terror of storms on the other is, I believe, a truly autobiographical statement." (12)

Understanding the composer's mental and emotional state at the time of composition will guide a singer's preparation and interpretation of the text, but once the notes are learned and the translation is written into the music, a singer turns to the language to communicate expressively with the audience. When approaching a new language, one begins by determining whether that language leans more heavily on the vowels or consonants to express textual meaning. Czech is considered a vowel-oriented language because "the maintaining of long or short vowels is critical for the meaning and intelligibility of Czech words." (13) To emphasize a certain word in Czech, the speaker will lengthen the vowel rather than accentuate a consonant. Despite its many clusters of consonants, the Czech language has a wonderful legato quality that lends itself naturally to the voice. Czech includes few glottals and, as Timothy

Cheek points out in his book, "lends itself to rubato... because of the critical long and short quality of these Italianate vowels." (14) Once one learns the symbols unique to the language, one discovers that Czech is actually quite phonetic. Consonant clusters are often the most intimidating part, but there are vowels hidden in them that become clear in the study of any Czech text, and it is important for all to learn to take advantage of voiced consonants by singing through them. Tackling a text in Czech can be daunting for native English speakers, but once a singer overcomes its challenges, many will find it quite enjoyable.

To understand how to pronounce Czech, one must understand the various components of the language. Table 1 presents all IPA symbols for each vowel and consonant in the Czech language. Czech vowels are quite close to Italian vowels, but unlike Italian, vowel length in Czech is an inherent aspect of meaning; the length of a vowel can alter the meaning of a word or make it unintelligible. When singing Czech repertoire, the singer should follow the rhythm set by the composer to adhere to the vowel length rules of the language; the main challenge comes when singing recitative, which requires more attention on the part of the singer. There are two lengths of vowel in Czech: short and long. All long vowels are marked with a "carka" (an accent aigu), the only exception being /u/, which will have either a carka or a "krouzek," a small circle above the letter indicating it is long. Diphthongs in Czech are of the falling variety, meaning that the first of the two vowels is the more significant in determining which pitch to associate with which vowel. Each vowel is more distinct than in a diphthong in English. If a diphthong is sung over a single, long note, then the first vowel receives most of the duration, and the second vowel is sung very late. However, if the composer does set a diphthong to two notes, the final vowel should always be sung upon reaching the second pitch, unless the tempo is too fast to allow it. Sometimes two vowels will occur next to one another. If it is the result of combining two words, then the vowels should be separated by a glottal. Otherwise, the vowels /a/, /e/, and /u/ should be made long. If the vowel /i/ is repeated, the [j] glide should be added between them.

The glide [j] is considered a semivowel or a semiconsonant; it is never considered a separate vowel with its own syllable. There is never a glottal before it and [j] is always linked to a vowel. If it occurs before a consonant or at the end of a word, it takes on the [i] sound. It will be pronounced at the last moment as very short and closed. The initial [j] preceding a consonant is also pronounced but again it is not a vowel and does not have its own syllable. The schwa has only one place in singing in Czech. It should be included in the singing of a vocalic /r/ on long notes (see Table 2). Syllabification is another factor that should be heeded in Czech. Most of the time, the composer has separated each syllable correctly; however, when voiced consonant clusters are involved, it is important to make sure that they are voiced on the right pitches. All consonants in a voiced cluster are sung on the same pitch.

Although uncommon, the glottal in Czech plays an important role. Singers will employ more glottals when singing than when speaking in Czech. A glottal should be used before every word that begins with a vowel. There are four one-letter nonsyllabic prepositions in Czech (o-, u-, k-, v-) that join with the words immediately following. If a word following any of these prepositions begins with a vowel, they should be separated by a glottal (see Table 2). A glottal should also be used after prefixes ending with a vowel that are followed by another vowel. It is important not to confuse prefixes with diphthongs; a composer will set both vowels of a diphthong to one note, whereas a prefix will have its own note.

Assimilation is another important characteristic of the legato of the Czech language (Table 3). It is the conformation of voiced consonants to unvoiced consonants and vice versa, depending upon their position in a consonant cluster. Assimilation adds to the fluidity of the language because voiced and unvoiced consonants will never appear together in a cluster. Most voiced consonants have an unvoiced equivalent (Table 4). The only exceptions are /j/, /l/, /m/, /n/, and /r/. The main rule of assimilation is that if any paired consonant meets another paired consonant of the opposite voicing, then the consonant to the right will determine the voicing of all the consonants in a cluster, meaning the voicing of the consonant to the far right will determine the voicing of all the consonants in a cluster to its left. Other rules of assimilation are as follows. A paired voiced final consonant in a word before a pause will devoice to its unvoiced mate. The word "bez," meaning without, by itself would be pronounced [b[epsilon]z], but before the word "vztahu," meaning relationship, the end of the first word devoices because the /t/ is unvoiced. Words ending in voiced consonants, except for the one-syllable prepositions, will devoice when they precede the unpaired consonants /j/, /l/, /m/, /n/, or /r/. The one-syllable prepositions will not devoice before the unpaired consonants. Only before a glottal or unvoiced consonant will a one syllable preposition devoice its final consonant. The one situation in which final voiced consonants do not devoice is before paired voiced consonants.

There are a few exceptions to these rules, which are demonstrated in Table 2. The letter /v/, when voiced, will not allow preceding unvoiced consonants to assimilate. A common occurrence with /v/ is the combination "sv;" the /s/ will not voice. /r/ changes its voicing according to regressive, or reverse, assimilation, but also according to progressive assimilation, meaning the /r/ yields to both the left and the right. Therefore, the preceding unvoiced consonants will yield to the right and be pronounced voiced. When /r/ is in the middle of a word between two vowels, it is also voiced and when it is next to an unpaired voiced consonant, it will be pronounced voiced. In a word beginning with /r/ followed by a vowel, the /r/ will always be voiced (see Table 2).

Since a skilled Czech composer will have already made the majority of rhythmic decisions in the score, linguistic inflection often takes a back seat when determining musical choices for a performance. However, using the stress and length of vowels is the most effective way to be expressive when singing in Czech. Even a basic understanding of the nuances of a language can significantly improve a performance, especially when singing recitative, and in this regard Czech articulation is quite simple. There is a weak, fixed emphasis on the initial syllable of every word or on a preposition that combines with a word to be pronounced as one. In the English language, stress is based almost entirely on the length of the vowel, whereas in Czech the length of the vowel is not affected by the placement of the stress. Since the stress in Czech is relatively weak, the difference between stressed and unstressed is less noticeable than in other languages. Not every word, however, is equally stressed; it depends upon the importance of the word within a sentence. Stress is often attained by a stronger attack and a higher pitch, but never by length. Most Czech vocal music will follow the natural Czech inflections. If the natural inflections are not heeded by the music, it is desirable to alter note values to allow long and short vowels to shine through.

By following the rules of Czech diction and stress, a musician can sing any Czech composition in the most expressive manner possible. Stress on syllables and length of vowels are the most effective tools to highlight the textual meaning in a performance. When learning a new text in Czech, the long vowels should be observed, especially when they occur in important words in a phrase. Those vowels can be given a little more length if the tempo of the phrase allows. The singer should also notice where the musical phrase is leading, and whether that vowel is long or if it is an important word. If not, the singer should identify a more important word to lengthen in the phrase. As stated earlier, a skilled Czech composer will have laid out the notes in a manner that expresses the specific rhythms and stresses of the language, but it is the singer's responsibility to enhance it further. Consonants are another tool used to emphasize individual words significant to the text. Vocalic consonants, like /l/ and /r/, can be used to be expressive, along with the unpaired consonants, like /m/ and /n/, since all can be vocalized.

Evident in the first two songs in the Biblical Songs cycle, Dvorak set the text in adherence to the Czech rules of stress (see Tables 5 and 6). The first line of the cycle is "oblak a mrakota jest vukol Neho," which contains long vowels in the first syllables of "mrakota" and "vukol," with a weak stress on the first syllable of all the other words. "Oblak a" is set on three even eighth notes, which indicates that the singer should stress the first syllable of "oblak," but not excessively because all the notes are equal. "Mra" is set on the downbeat of the next measure to a dotted eighth note, giving it the appropriate stress and length required (Table 5). "Vukol," although not on the downbeat of the next measure, is set to a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note, which applies the correct length and stress to the first syllable. "Neho" is set to two eighth notes beginning on the downbeat of the next measure. The downbeat gives the first syllable the appropriate stress, but weakens it by making both notes equal. Since this line is essentially recitative, the singer should bend the note values to provide the appropriate stress. The length of the note under "mra" in m. 5 should be held a little longer to increase the tempo for the rest of the measure, and the same can be done on "vu" in m. 6.

In the second song, the text is just as masterfully set as in the first (Table 6). In the return of the main theme in m. 14, Dvorak altered note lengths to accommodate stresses of the new text. Since there is no long syllable in the opening words "posiluj mne," he did not use the previous dotted rhythm that worked so well for "skryse ma a" in the first section of the song. Instead, the phrase begins on the second beat, set to a triplet, and the final note is shortened to a quarter, which removes any unnecessary stress. In the next measure, the longest note is set to the only long syllable in the phrase, "van." The contrast between sixteenth notes and eighth notes in m. 16 emphasizes the long vowels in "nim Tvym." Although the musical phrase heads to the penultimate syllable on "vi," this does not appropriately express the textual meaning. To address this, the singer should lengthen the notes on "nim Tvym" and taper "ustavicne" since it is an unimportant word, meaning "continually," and it has no long vowels.

These are a few examples of how the mastery of the rules of Czech diction and expression can inform a singer's performance of the cycle, or any piece in the Czech language. In addition, understanding Dvorak's frame of mind at the time he composed the cycle will guide the singer's performance of the Biblical Songs. Dvorak's emotional state when he began work on this cycle affected many of his musical and textual choices. The deaths of his children and several close friends, along with news of his father's illness were the impetus for him to begin, but for him perhaps the process was cathartic. As evidenced by the genesis of his Stabat Mater and Requiem, composition of liturgical music was a way to reaffirm his faith in God, sometimes for public display, as in the Requiem, and sometimes for private reasons, as in the Stabat Mater and the Biblical Songs. The choices he made about which Psalms to set in the Biblical Songs, which lines of those Psalms to set, and the order in which to set them show that he had a personal and likely spiritual purpose to compose the Biblical Songs, beyond making beautiful music.


(1.) Michael B. Beckerman, New Worlds of Dvorak: Searching in America for the Composer's Inner Life (New York: Norton, 2003), 152.

(2.) Ibid., 158.

(3.) Otakar Sourek, Antontn Dvorak, Letters and Reminiscences (New York: Da Capo Press, 1984), 112.

(4.) John Clapham, Antontn Dvorak; Musician and Craftsman (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966), 237.

(5.) Ibid., 244.

(6.) Ibid., 256.

(7.) Sourek, 111.

(8.) Paul Stefan, Anton Dvorak, trans. Y. W. Vance (New York: The Greystone press, 1941), 72.

(9.) Beckerman, 158.

(10.) Daniel Jacobsen, Dvorak in America 1892-1895, ed. John C. Tibbetts (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993), 255.

(11.) Beckerman, 157.

(12.) Ibid., 159.

(13.) Timothy Cheek, Singing in Czech: A Guide to Czech Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001), 4.

(14.) Ibid., 4.

Leslie De'Ath, Associate Editor

Originally from Massachusetts, soprano Amalia Francalangia earned a Bachelor's degree in Music from Smith College and a Master's degree in Opera Performance from the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at California State University Long Beach. During her graduate studies, she became interested in Czech music, ultimately writing her thesis on singing in Czech. She has performed selections from Dvorak's Biblical Songs, in addition to several Czech arias, and a scene from Prodana nevesta (The Bartered Bride). She was invited to the Bob Cole Conservatory to coach students in the Opera Institute on Czech diction and expression in a scene from Rusalka. Ms. Francalangia is currently studying with Shigemi Matsumoto. She has performed in productions throughout Southern California, including Pamina in Die Zauberfl[delta]te, Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, the title role in Luisa Fernanda, Dido in Dido and Aeneas, and most recently Rosalinde in an adaptation of Die Fledermaus.
Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing. Fa la,
Each with his bonny lass
A-dancing on the grass. Fa la.
The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter's sadness. Fa la,
And to the bagpipe's sound
The nymphs tread out the ground. Fa la.
Fie! Then why sit we musing,
Youth's sweet delight refusing? Fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs and speak,
Shall we play barley-break? Fa la.
Sir Thomas Morley

TABLE 1. Czech Vowels and Consonants.

Vowel   IPA            Vowel            IPA             Consonant   IPA

a       [a]            U                [u:]            b           [b]
a       [a:]           U                [u:]            c           [ts]
e or e  [[epsilon]]    Y                [i:]            c           [tJl
e       [[epsilon]:]   Y                [i]             ch          [x]

i       [i:]           Ou               [??u] or        d           [d]
i       [i]            Au               [au] or         d'          [d']
o       [o]            J                [j]             dz          [dz]
o       [o:]           Final j or j +   [[.sup.i]]      f           [f]
u       [u]            i or y + j       [[[??].sup.i]]  g           [g]
                                                        h           [h]
                                                        k           [k]
                                                        l           [l]

Vowel   Consonant   IPA

a       m           [m]
a       n           [n]
e or e  P           [p]
e       r           [[??]] or
i       s           [s]

i       s           [[integral]]

o       t           [t]
o       t'          [t']

u       V           [v]
        z           [z]
        z           [[??]]

TABLE 2. Examples of Exceptions.

Exception                 Czech          IPA

A paired voiced final     bez            [b[epsilon]z]
A paired voiced final     bez            [b[epsilon]s]
consonant before a rest
or pause
Voiced final consonant    bez vztahu     [b[epsilon]s fstahu]
before unvoiced
Voiced final consonant    v niz neni     [v[n.sup.j]i:[integral]
before j, l, m, n, or r                  n[epsilon][n.sup.j]i]
Final voiced consonants   kdyz zacina    [gdi[??] zat] [integral]i:na]
do not devoice before
paired voiced
Schwa with vocalic r      okrsku         [[??]k[??][integral]ku]
/v/ exception, after an   pastvach       [pastva:x]
unvoiced consonant
/v/ before an unvoiced    vsichni        [f[integral]ix[n.sup.j]i]
/r/ exception             dvifka         [dvi:Rka]
/r/ before a vowel        reckni mu      [r[epsilon]k[??]i mu]
/r/ between two vowels    tvari          [tva:ri:]
/v/ preposition before    v upeni        [f ?u:p[epsilon][n.sup.j]i:]
/k/ preposition before    k ustanovenim  [k ?ustan[??]v[epsilon]
vowel                                    [n.sup.j]i:m]

TABLE 3. Examples of Assimilation.

Voiced to unvoiced   Unvoiced to voiced

Czech         IPA                                           Czech

rozplyvaji    [r[??]spli:vaji:]                             prosbou
odstuptez     [[??]tstupt[epsilon][integral]]               modlitbu
obcerstvuje   [?[??]pt[integral][epsilon]rstvuj[epsilon]]   poodpocinul

Czech         IPA

rozplyvaji    [pr[??]zb[??]:u]
odstuptez     [m[??]dlidbu]
obcerstvuje   [p[??]?[??]tp[??]t[integral]inul]

TABLE 4. Paired Consonants.

Voiced              Unvoiced

b[b]                p[p]
d[d]                t[t]
d' [d']             t' [t']
dz [dz]             c[ts]
dz [d[??]]          c[t[integral]]
g[g]                k[k]
h [h] ([[gamma]])   ch[x]
r[r]                r[R]
v[v]                f[f]
z[z]                s[s]
z [[??]]            s[[integral]]
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Title Annotation:LANGUAGE AND DICTION; Antonin Dvorak
Author:Francalangia, Amalia; De'Ath, Leslie
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2018
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