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Composed: 1883
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances.

With the publication of his Slavonic Dances in 1878 (wildly popular in the piano four-hands version, as well as orchestrally), Dvorák became an internationally known composer almost overnight. He followed the Dances with the equally popular Slavonic Rhapsodies, and commissions and requests for major works started coming in, including the Sixth Symphony for conductor Hans Richter and Vienna, and the Violin Concerto for Joseph Joachim at the behest of Dvorák’s publisher Simrock.

More important, perhaps, he was becoming known as a distinctively Czech composer in a period of socio-political tensions within the Germanic hegemony of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Dvorák asked Simrock to print the title pages of his pieces in both Czech and German, and to print his first name with just the abbreviation “Ant.”, which worked for either the German “Anton” or the Czech “Antonín.”

As such, he became the go-to composer in Prague for nationalistic music for semi-official occasions, including the Festival March he wrote for the silver wedding anniversary of the Emperor and Empress and the Prague Waltzes for a society ball. The Hussite Overture was commissioned for the gala opening of the new National Theater in Prague in November 1883. The Theater’s chief administrator, Frantisek Subert, planned a dramatic trilogy on the Bohemian religious leader Jan Hus and the 15th-century pre-Reformation struggles, and Dvorák accepted that as the subject of his Overture.

This was the composer’s first real foray into instrumental programmatic music, and characteristically he used the abstract principles of sonata form to convey the dramatic arc. The Overture has a slow, solemn introduction that suggests the nostalgia and massing tensions of the pre-Hussite period. The fierce exposition section represents the looming conflict, the energetic development section the battles, and the recapitulation the restoration of peace (in the major mode).

Dvorák used elements of two traditional Czech tunes, the Hussite battle hymn “Ye who are God’s warriors” and the older chorale “St. Wenceslas” (not to be confused with the “Good King Wenceslas” carol) as his main themes, articulating the sonata form structure and symbolizing the two sides, proto-Protestant and Catholic. They are also musically pliable, however, suitable for thematic fragmentation and development, and both transcend narrower sectarian associations, to be broadly nationalistic. (“St. Wenceslas” was considered as a tune for the official national anthem when Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918.) Dvorák, devoutly Catholic and proud of his homeland, stressed triumphant reconciliation in the recapitulation.

John Henken