Monday 22 January 2018

Dvorak's sweet train a-coming

"I'm sittin' in the railway station/ Got a ticket for my destination" are the opening lines of a song by Paul Simon, the stranded folk singer's yearning to be somewhere else.

Simon's 'Homeward Bound' may seem a strange place to start a consideration of the Czech man of music, Antonin Dvorak, but there are connections a-plenty.

For one thing, Dvorak's most famous creation -- the slow movement of his Ninth Symphony (The New World) -- ranks as one of the most perfect pieces of melodic nostalgia. The man who wrote the lyrics when it was turned into a song had no doubt about this. William Arms Fisher, an American pupil of Dvorak's, maintained that the opening theme "suggest(s) the words 'Goin' home, goin' home'".

Then there's the railway connection. Dvorak was mad about trains! He was born in 1841 in a small village not far from Prague, and the railway came when he was just a boy. The fascination persisted, all through his life.

After he'd settled in the capital, he'd go to the main station every day just to watch the comings and goings. It was the arrival of a train full of Czechs from Hungary one evening that gave him the inspiration for his Symphony No 7.

When he was lured to New York by the promise of a fat contract, the railway remained as much a part of his day as his music. He really was a man obsessed. "I'd give all my symphonies," he once said, "if I could have invented the locomotive."

It's been suggested his passion had its roots in his background. As the son of a village butcher who ran the local pub, his horizons would have been restricted. Historically, too, there'd have been no freedom of movement for the Czech peasantry in which his family had its roots. The train would have represented a way out.

Antonin Dvorak's music reflects the vast array of influences that this desire to break free exposed him to. From the Czech tunes and rhythms from beyond his home place that inspired so much from his Slavonic Dances to his symphonies, those influences stretch all the way to the sounds he came across during the three years he spent in North America.

'Goin' Home' is just the tip of a musical iceberg, a treasure trove that's always high on melody. It passes the ultimate test, too, for it's always such a delight to hear.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30am each Saturday morning.

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