Shakespeare 400: Nature in Dvořák's Othello

On Wednesday 3 February, the London Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing Dvořák’s Othello Overture. In preparation, we explored the work’s context in order to determine what might have drawn Dvořák to create a musical adaption of Shakespeare’s play, and to understand just how the music depicts the tragic plot.

Dvořák’s Othello Overture was first performed in Prague on 28 April 1892, and had originally been conceived as a trilogy of overtures: entitled ‘Nature’, ‘Life’, and ‘Love’. He later chose to publish them as three individual overtures, renaming them as ‘Amid Nature’, ‘Carnival’ and ‘Othello’. Being a highly religious man, Dvořák was fascinated with the force of nature, and although they later became individualised, nature is certainly a theme that unites the three overtures. It is in his final overture, that Dvořák explored nature’s omnipotent control over love.

So what made Dvořák decide to change the final overture’s title to Othello? Why did he choose this particular Shakespearian work as his inspiration? And what connection did the music have to the play’s original plot?

Perhaps the mere relation to Shakespeare’s play made the Overture far more appealing to Dvořák’s audiences. Othello received a new surge of popularity during the 19th century, with notable performances by actors including Edmund Keen becoming household names across Europe. Soon composers too began to turn their attention to the tragedy, with operatic adaptations by Rossini (1816) and perhaps the more well know version by Verdi (1887). With its increased recognition within popular culture, especially with its recent musical treatment by the Italians, Dvořák may have felt inclined to jump on the Othello musical bandwagon.

Yet perhaps Dvořák also felt he could breathe new life into the work. Though a tragedy, it is love that underlines the tragedy of the play’s protagonists, and through his Overture, Dvořák demonstrates that love (nature’s force) can be warped by jealousy.

Dvořák’s Othello concentrates on a limited range of characters and action sequences: simplifying Shakespeare’s plot. The Overture begins with a simple sweet motif, representing the love between Othello and Desdemona. The music swiftly darkens, introducing nature’s force, as Othello becomes jealous of Desdemona’s affection and attention from other men. Consumed by his rage and jealousy, he kills Desdemona returning once again to a variance of their love theme. Struck by his sudden horrific actions, he turns his rage on himself, considering no choice but to end his own life.

Although Dvořák had initially intended simply to portray ‘love’ in his overture, perhaps it is only through Shakespeare, and in particular through Othello that he is truly able to realise this. This overture represents the raw reality of love, and his depiction of Shakespeare’s play acts as a warning cry to humanity: love is powerful but it is nature’s force that has ultimate control over our emotions.

Othello Synopsis

The story of William Shakespeare's Othello is set in 16th-century Venice and Cyprus. Othello is a highly esteemed general in the Venetian army and Iago is the protagonist’s ambitious friend. When Othello promotes another soldier instead of him, Iago becomes resentful of Othello: concocting an evil and malicious campaign to fool Othello into believing that his beloved Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. Othello believes him and maddened by jealousy, he strangles Desdemona. Soon afterwards her innocence is finally revealed, and Iago’s treachery has been exposed. In a fit of grief and remorse Othello kills himself and Iago is taken into custody by the Venetian authorities.

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Don’t miss our performance of Dvořák’s Othello Overture on Wednesday 3 February, followed by Brahms Double Concerto for violin and cello, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6.

Also on the day: Don’t miss our pre-concert event at 6.00pm, when Professor Russ McDonald, Goldsmiths, and Professor Clare McManus, University of Roehampton reflect on Othello's popularity with adaptors and composers, and its influence on perceptions of ethnicity, religion and gender.

Join us for our next performance of our Shakespeare 400 festival on Wednesday 10 Februrary, as Osmo Vänskä conducts excerpts from Sibelius's incidental music The Tempest with additional narration by Simon Callow, as well as Dvořák’s Piano Concerto, performed by renowned pianist Stephen Hough.