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In Dvorak’s ‘Othello,’ allure and anxiety of unknown shores

Antonin Dvorak depicted in 1893.National Museum/Czech Museum of Music

This week, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for the last of its mid-winter Shakespeare-themed programs, performs (on Thursday and Saturday’s concerts) Antonin Dvorak’s concert overture on “Othello” (Op. 93). The composer regarded “Othello” as one of his best efforts, but its place in the repertoire was quickly usurped by Dvorak’s “Carnival” overture (Op. 92). The original plan was a triptych: “In Nature’s Realm” (Op. 91), “Carnival,” and “Othello” forming a large tone poem on “Nature, Life, and Love.” (The main motive of Op. 91 turns up in “Othello,” harmonically twisted, Mother Nature distorted into human nature.) Dvorak penciled plot points from the play into the original manuscript. But those signposts didn’t make it into the published score; for a while, Dvorak even considered giving the overture a more generic title (“Tragic” was in the running, as was, interestingly, “Heroic”). It leaves open one (very) speculative possibility, that, in addition to the play’s setting, the overture had an eye on another locale: America.

Dvorak began working on “Othello” just after agreeing to come to New York to be the head of the National Conservatory of Music. Significantly, voyage and emigration are prominent themes in Shakespeare’s play — and not just the contrast between Othello’s triply-alien origins (black, foreign-born, Muslim) and his Venetian eminence. “Othello” is a play that travels, figuratively and literally. Iago is constantly on the move, ordering confederates to go here and there. The plot kicks into high gear after a sea voyage to Cyprus.


The overture’s structure hints at Shakespeare’s complex notion of foreignness. When Dvorak flashes back to early, happier days of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship, the music shifts to D minor — a long way, harmonically speaking, from the work’s home key of F-sharp. It suggests how distant that happiness has become; but also of how Othello used his exoticness, his otherness to woo Desdemona, entrancing her with tales of his travels to far-off places. (“This to hear,” Othello remarks, “would Desdemona seriously incline.”)

True, New York is not Venice, or even Cyprus. Then again, Shakespeare’s other great examination of jealousy, “The Winter’s Tale,” gave Dvorak’s home country of Bohemia deserts and a seacoast — not unlike the sort of untethered fantasy that Europeans would sometimes apply to America as well. Dvorak’s American years yielded some of his most famous works (with the “New World” Symphony leading the way); but, in the “Othello” overture, Dvorak had already explored the anxiety and attraction of foreign lands.


Matthew Guerrieri

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons, performs music of Strauss, Dvorak, Tsontakis, and Tchaikovsky on Feb. 11, 12 (without Dvorak), and 13. Tickets $30-$119. 888-266-1200; www.bso.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.