‘The Water Goblin’ (Vodník) by Antonín Dvořák and Karel Jaromír Erben

The following article presents both an overview and a detailed discussion of the relationship between Dvořák’s The Water Goblin and Erben’s poem, Vodník. This has been done both to share great works of art, and in the hope that it will better our appreciation of the music through a fuller understanding of the literature behind it.

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák

Karel Jaromir Erben

Karel Jaromír Erben

Following on from the latest discussion about Dvořák’s symphonic poem, The Noon Witch, we now turn to The Water Goblin (which is dated as Op. 107, earlier than the former which is Op. 108, but nevertheless composed in the same brief period during 1896). If you remember, both works are representations of poems by Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben, which appeared in his collection of ballads originally titled Kytice z pověstí národních (trans. A Bouquet of National Legends) in 1853. The Water Goblin, or Vodník in Czech, is the ninth poem in this collection, and I’m sure you can recall that the fifth (The Golden Spinning-Wheel) and the seventh (The Wild Dove) were also portrayed by Dvořák in symphonic form.

Contents

  • A complete annotated performance of Dvořák’s The Water Goblin is available on the blog’s companion YouTube Channel.
  • For a full original language (Czech) transcription of Erben’s poem Vodník, click here.

Overview

  • Click here for a separate article on the background of all Dvořák’s symphonic poems and Erben’s ‘Kytice’.

Detailed Discussion

Detailed Discussion

Erben’s Water Goblin

The Water Goblin of slavic mythology varies significantly both within Eastern Europe, and with its counterparts in German folklore. However, to generalise the Czech idea of the Water Goblin, the creature is male and is said to have a human body, though with algae-green skin. His demeanour is that of a vagrant, and he is thought to be the cause of drownings. When the Goblin does claim such a victim, he stores his or her soul in a porcelain cup, which his kind believes to be valuable, but he may also aid fishermen if he is offered tobacco.

In some versions of the figure that Erben collected, the Water Goblin is a quite comical figure, but the Water Goblin of this poem is undoubtedly sinister; we are presented with the gruesome tale of a mother and her daughter’s fate with the Goblin. After the narration of a dream that the mother interprets to be a bad omen, she warns her daughter not to approach the nearby lake, but, naturally, she does so, and when she dips her first dress in the water to wash it, the bridge on which she stands collapses and she falls in. Triumphant, the Goblin claims her as his wife, and she laments her bleak and colourless existence in his subterranean kingdom. They have a child, which is the woman’s only light in her new, dark existence, but she begs her new husband to leave for a while so that she may see her mother once more. After thinking that she will never be reunited, the Goblin reluctantly consents to let her go, but on three conditions: first, she mustn’t kiss or embrace anyone; second, she must return after one day, as soon as the bells ring out for Vespers; and third, she must leave their child with him as a hostage. After a sad meeting between the two women, the evening bells sound – signalling that the daughter must return to the lake – but her distraught mother holds her back, infuriating the Goblin. He knocks on the door, agitating the pair, and demands that their child must be fed. Still, the mother stands fast and asks that the child is brought to them. Now maddened with rage, the Goblin returns to the lake, and, after a violent crash during a storm, the mother and daughter open their door to find the headless body of the child on the doorstep.

As wonderful as they are, I initially had some difficulty acquiring a translation of any of Erben’s poems. I previously mentioned that I had read that Susan Reynolds, curator of Czech, Slovak and Lusatian literature at the British Library, had completed such a translation in 2002, but it had (and still has) yet to be published. Nevertheless, I contacted her in person and she very generously permitted me to reproduce her translations on this website with the understanding that it may no longer be possible once her translations are published – I certainly hope that they are soon. Anyway, before moving onto a discussion about the music, here is the translation so that you have the chronology of the poem in mind while you hear the Dvořák’s composition:

I

On a poplar by the pool
The Goblin sat at twilight cool:
‘Glow, moon, glow,
That my thread may sew.

For myself new boots I’m sewing,
On dry land and water going:
Glow, moon, glow,
That my thread may sew.

‘Thursday now – tomorrow’s Friday -
Sew a coat all trim and tidy:
Glow, moon, glow,
That my thread may sew.

Coat of green and boots of red,
For tomorrow I’ll be wed:
Glow, moon, glow,
That my thread may sew.’

II

At first light a young girl rose,
In a bundle tied her clothes:
‘I’ll go, mother, to the lake;
All my things to wash I’ll take.’

‘Don’t go, don’t go to the water,
Stay at home today, my daughter!
In the night I dreamed bad dreams:
Don’t go, daughter, where it streams.

First a string of pearls I chose you,
Then in robes of white I clothed you,
Skirts that swirled like foaming water:
Don’t go to the lake, my daughter.

Grief’s concealed in that white dress,
Pearls hide tears of deep distress,
Friday’s an unlucky day,
Don’t go, daughter – keep away!’

But the daughter cannot rest;
To the lake, as if possessed,
To the lake, as if pursued -
Home no longer suits her mood.

As the first dress she was soaking,
Under her the bridge fell broken,
And upon that poor young girl
Closed the eddying water’s whirl.

From the depths great waves came rolling,
Ripples in wide rings unfolding;
On the rock by the poplar tree,
A small green figure clapped with glee.

III

Gloomy are those watery realms,
Desolate are they;
Water-lilies float above
Grass where fishes play.

There no sunlight spreads its warmth,
No breeze stirs the air;
Cold and silent, like a heart
Hopeless with despair.

Gloomy are those watery realms,
Desolate are they;
Half in darkness, half in light
Day glides after day.

Spacious are the Goblin’s courts,
Of wealth he has his fill;
But the guests who visit them
Stay against their will.

If beyond their crystal gates
A traveller should explore,
Rarely will his loved ones’ eyes
Ever see him more.

Between the gates the Goblin sits,
Fishing-nets he’s mending;
While his young wife by his side
Her new baby’s tending.

‘Rockabye, my little son,
Born to one unwilling,
While you’re smiling up at me,
Grief my heart is killing.

Happily you stretch to me
Little hands, and wave;
Up on earth I’d rather be,
Lying in my grave.

In the earth, beside the church
With a black cross near -
Then at least she’d have me close,
My poor mother dear.

Rockabye, my little son,
Tiny goblin-lad;
How, when I remember her,
Can I not grow sad?

Anxiously she used to plan
To what man she’d give me;
Never once did she expect
That she might outlive me!

I got married, yes indeed,
But against her wishes;
Crayfish black the groomsmen were,
And the bridesmaids – fishes!

And my man – God pity me! -
On dry land walks seeping;
In the water, under jars
Human souls he’s keeping.

Rockabye, my little son,
With your moss-green hair;
Mother’s wedding didn’t bring her
Home to loving care.

In a web of cunning nets
Tangled and beguiled,
Here she has no happiness,
Only you, my child!’

‘What’s that song of yours, my wife?
I don’t like your singing!
Songs like that pierce heart and mind,
Bitter anger bringing.

‘Stop your song at once, my wife,
Gall within me swells:
Many girls I’ve turned to fish -
You’ll be one as well!’

‘Don’t be angry, don’t be cross,
Goblin, husband dear!
Do not blame a faded rose,
Crushed and withered here.

‘Like a tree in spring, my youth
You have snapped and broken;
Yet no kindness for my sake
Have you done or spoken.

‘I’ve begged you a hundred times -
Sweetly I’d implore:
Let me go to mother once,
Just one short time more.

‘I’ve begged you a hundred times -
Floods of tears I’d cry -
Let me see her once again
For a last goodbye!

I’ve begged you a hundred times -
On my knees I’d fall;
But the hard rind of your heart
Softened not at all!

Don’t be angry, don’t be cross,
Goblin dear, my master!
If you must, then let your wrath
Make my doom come faster.

If you’d turn me to a fish
So that dumb I’d be,
Rather change me to a stone
With no memory.

Rather change me to a stone
With no thought or feeling:
So I’d never grieve again
For the sun’s bright wheeling!’

‘If I could believe your words,
Happy, wife, I’d be;
But who can catch the same fish twice
In the open sea?

‘Neither would I hold you back
From visiting your mother;
But women’s empty thoughts, I fear,
Are one thing – deeds another!

‘Well, then – I will let you go,
From my kingdom’s borders;
But command that faithfully
You must obey my orders.

‘Don’t take your mother in your arms,
Nor any other soul
Lest that earthly love of yours
Finds an unearthly goal.

‘From dawn to dusk, no-one at all
In your arms you must take;
And when the vesper bells ring out,
Come back to the lake.

‘From morning bell to evening bell
You can go – that may be;
One condition: as a pledge
You must leave the baby.’

IV

What would early summer be like
If it lacked the sun’s bright face?
What would a reunion be like
If it lacked a warm embrace?
And if a child, so long apart,
Clasps her mother to her heart,
Who could blame a loving daughter
For that act in such a case?

All day they console each other,
Though their tears fall like a shower.
‘Goodbye now, my darling mother -
Oh, I fear the evening hour!’
‘Don’t be frightened, daughter dear;
Of that murderer have no fear;
I’ll make sure that water-monster
Never gets you in his power!’

Evening’s come. Outside, the green man
Stalks about within the yard.
In their room, the girl and mother
Crouch, the door tight-wedged and barred.
‘Don’t be frightened, daughter dear;
Nothing’s going to harm you here;
The murderer from the lake is powerless
Up on land that’s dry and hard.’

When the vesper bells were ringing,
Bang! – A knock the door did shake.
‘Come along, my wife, come home now,
Supper-time – there’s food to make!’
‘Crafty murderer, get away
From our threshold – go, I say!
What you used to have for supper -
Go and eat it in the lake!’

Bang! – The splintered door at midnight
Shook with knocks to wake the dead:
‘Come along, my wife, come home now,
For you have to make my bed.’
‘Crafty murderer, get away
From our threshold – go, I say!
Let whoever used to make it
Come and do the job instead!’

Bang! A third time came the knocking
As the morning light grew grey:
‘Come along, my wife, come home now,
Baby’s crying for milk, I say!’ -
‘Mother, agony past bearing
For my child my heart is tearing!
Mother mine, oh, dearest mother,
Let me, let me go away!’

‘No, my girl – you’re going nowhere!
That fiend’s plotting something new;
If you’re worried for your baby,
Greater is my fear for you.
Get back, murderer, to the water!
I won’t let you take my daughter:
If your little one is crying,
Bring it to our threshold – do!’

On the lake the storm is shrieking;
In the storm the child screams shrill;
Screams that pierce the soul with anguish,
Then they suddenly fall still.
‘Oh, my mother, please, oh, please!
At those cries my blood will freeze -
Mother mine, oh, dearest mother,
Fear of him my heart does fill!’

Something fell – beneath the doorway
Moisture trickles – tinged with red.
When the old one went to open,
What she saw filled her with dread.
In their blood, two objects lying
Sent cold terror through her flying:
Baby’s head – without a body;
Tiny body – with no head.

The piece itself was formally premièred on 14th November 1896 in London. A letter written by Dvořák to the Vienna critic Dr. Robert Hirschfeld, shortly before its performance by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter on 22nd November 1896, allows us an insight both into what the poem is about in the absence of a translation or understanding of Czech, and into the comparative structures of the poem and its accompanying music. The letter is reproduced here with musical extracts to demonstrate what the motifs sound like for those who do not understand musical notation, but there is also a complete annotated performance available, so that you can piece together the motifs in the context of the whole composition.

Dvořák’s Letter

Dear Dr. Hirschfeld,

I shall be pleased to comply with your request, but it is unfortunate that there will not be an opportunity to discuss such an important matter personally with you. You have guessed a good deal, but not in all cases, however, quite in the way that I intended it.

The extract of the poem by Jaromir Erben contains just about everything that refers to one or another of the scenes of the original. The characters are the Water Goblin, the mother, the daughter and the child.

May I now point out what is essential with regards to the poem and the music:

I. The main theme, dominating the whole symphonic poem, is that of the water goblin [Flute]:
fig1


II. Andante sostenuto, B major: the daughter.


III. Page 15 of the score contains the warning and the narration of the mother’s dream, advising her [the daughter] against going to the lake (it appears three times in varied form):
fig2
(etc. motif of the mother)


Repeated use is made of the daughter’s motif as the theme until p. 20. I want to indicate by means of the sudden E-C-G chord in the Allegro vivo that the daughter fell into the water, and a little later this is followed by the B minor motif of the Water Goblin, expressing diabolical delight at having gained the victim who will become his wife. I am not sure if I am expressing myself well in German, but I hope you will excuse me.


Andante mesto come prima, is a description of life in the subterranean realm of which the poet says: here everything is sad and bleak, without sunshine, a stillness, a chilliness and in one’s heart there is no hope. The Water Goblin is with his wife
fig3


in his palace, and she is lamenting. Now she sings a lullaby for her child [Flute and Oboe]
fig4
(’sleep my child’)


the daughter grieves and laments and thinks about her mother. She says: no joy, no hope of seeing her mother. This lullaby is interrupted by the Water Goblin, who says: ‘Don’t sing, wife, your singing is damnable’ and ‘you mustn’t provoke me’. Score p. 34
fig5


to p. 37
fig6


She begs him not to be angry with her, and tries to calm him down by talking gently to him. The whole scene is a duet for these two. He does not want to allow her to leave, but she implores him to let her go to her mother. Finally, he consents. She goes to her mother [Cello]:
fig7
(etc. with trombone accompaniment)
This is the sad meeting with her mother and, at the same time, the leave-taking [separation from the child]. Flute, oboe and clarinets have the mother’s theme in its changed form
fig8


In the
Allegro vivace, the story draws to a close. The Water Goblin will soon appear; in the meantime, we hear the storm on the lake, evening bells ringing and the knocking on the door
fig9
(cello, later full orchestra)


Agitation of the mother and daughter!

The poet gives a long description of this scene, but I merely selected the most important points which I have referred to above.

With the fff crashes in the orchestra
fig10


the deed of the Water Goblin is accomplished. The motif of the mother follows, bass clar., cor anglais, and the flutes
fig11
imitate the frogs singing in the water on the B. Clrt:
fig12


So the dream comes true; Friday is an ill-fated day. The frightful expression of the mother’s feelings,
fig13
the child has been murdered! Finally, we hear the music of the Water Goblin, describing how he mysteriously disappears into his subterranean kingdom.


With many thanks for all your trouble,
Yours faithfully,
Antonín Dvořák

__________
Sources:
- John Clapham, ‘Dvořák’s unknown letters on his Symphonic Poems’ in Music and Letters (1975, LVI: 277-287).
- Translation provided by Susan Reynolds.
- Musical extracts from Neeme Järvi with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos, 1989).

Recommended recording:
- Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Warner Classics, 2006).

4 Responses

  1. [...] ‘The Water Goblin’ (Vodník) by Antonín Dvořák and Karel Jaromír Erben [...]

  2. I’d just like to thank you for an interesting article and a brilliant blog in general, and to draw your attention to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1999 recording of Dvořák’s ‘Vodník’ with the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw. It is definitely my favourite recording of the piece. I cannot help but feel it is more excitingly and thoughtfully played than Sir Gibson’s, no disrespect.

  3. Thanks for your response; I’m glad you found the article interesting.

    I’ve just listened to Harnoncourt’s recording, which I was unaware of when I acquired Sir Gibson’s, and I am unsurprisingly impressed. While I think Sir Gibson’s still stands out as one of the best recordings of the piece, with a great handle on the structure of the music, I do think that Harnoncourt was more successful in bringing the poem’s characterisations to life.

    The only reservation I’d have about Harnoncourt’s – though it is only a fraction of the piece – is the sad meeting between mother and daughter. It’s such a heart-rending section, and I think Sir Gibson manages to squeeze more emotion out of it, but Harnoncourt’s is certainly an all-round better performance – I shall add it to my collection! Thanks for pointing it out.

  4. Thank you very much for this explanation of the music, that makes it even more a pleasure to listen to. I am currently playing this with my orchestra, so it’s nice to know what you’re actually playing! :-)
    And by the way, my favourite interpretation is the one with Rafael Kubelík and the Sinfonieorchester des Bayrischen Rundfunks, do you know that one? But Harnoncourt is very nice as well!

Leave a Reply