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king and collier - 1st setting

COMPOSED April (?) 1871 - 20 December 1871
PREMIERE - DATE AND PLACE 28 May 1929, Prague
PREMIERE - PERFORMER(S) Hilbert Vavra - King Matyas, Bozena Kozlikova - Queen, Miloslav Jenik - Jindrich, Marie Sponarova - Eva, Emil Pollert - Matej, collier, Anna Rejholcová - Anna, his wife, Ota Horakova - Liduska, Jaroslav Gleich - Jenik, Hanuš Thein - Sekacek, National Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conductor Otakar Ostrcil, director: Ferdinand Pujman
FIRST EDITION not published yet
LIBRETTO Bernard Guldener (pseudonym: B. J. Lobesky)
INSTRUMENTATION 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists
1st act: A Woodland Glade
2nd act: A Wooded Landscape
3rd act: A Hall in Prague Castle
CHARACTERS King Matyas - baritone
Queen - contralto
Jindrich, burgrave - tenor
Matej, collier - bass
Anna, his wife - contralto
Liduska, their daughter - soprano
Jenik, young collier - tenor
huntsmen, courtiers, guards, colliers and their wives


composition history

Dvorak wrote the first version of his opera King and Collier during the course of 1871, in his thirtieth year. He now had a series of works to his name, but none of them had been performed in public, including his one opera, Alfred. The composition of a new opera thus might be seen as Dvorak’s second attempt to break out onto the operatic stage. This time the composer was more circumspect in his choice of libretto: His preference for a folkloric story and a text in Czech would have been an advantage for a possible staging at the Czech Provisional Theatre in Prague. Dvorak was practically unknown as a composer at that time, as is clearly evident in a report printed in Svetozor magazine, which states that a new opera was being written by “a member of the Czech theatre orchestra, Mr. Josef (sic!) Dvorak”. The composer offered the completed work to the Provisional Theatre but the opera management did not give their consent to stage the opera until the start of the 1873/74 season, a decision probably influenced by the outstanding response to the premiere of Dvorak’s Hymn “The Heirs of the White Mountain”. In the meantime, the orchestra did at least perform the overture, which critics described as “an interesting new work, even surprising in its impact.” The continual delays to rehearsals of the opera itself were extremely frustrating for Dvorak, however, both from a professional and financial point of view. In his application for funding submitted in May 1873 to Svatobor, a Prague association for the support of artists, he states that “this is my greatest work to date, the opera ‘King and Collier’, put aside by the theatre for two years, consigned to the future with promises and prevarications, yet this work should be acknowledged with some kind of material reward.

last page of the score

rejection of the work

At the time the Provisional Theatre started rehearsing, a report appeared in Dalibor magazine indicating the subsequent misfortune of the opera “for which preparatory rehearsals have already begun with great gusto, yet, due to the exceptional complexities of the work and its technical difficulty, they will require more time”. These “complexities” were nothing more than the intricate polyphonic style Dvorak had chosen for his score. Singers accustomed to a more transparent setting in operas by Meyerbeer, Verdi and others, whose works dominated the repertoire, had considerable problems coping with the challenging structure of the ensemble scenes. A number of testimonies have survived which describe the obstacles the opera score presented. Music critic Vaclav Juda Novotny described the atmosphere at the rehearsals:

first page of the score
The opera was assigned, the parts were written out, everyone began diligently studying their roles, however, it was not easy to move things forward: every soloist complained about the difficulty of their parts and the thankless task ahead of them, and the chorus could not get Dvorak’s melodies into their heads – everything that was planned for performance after Dvorak’s opera was hindered by this. Everyone was reluctant to attend the rehearsals, because they were convinced in themselves that all this work would be in vain, that this music would never find favour with its audience. Nevertheless, despite the chaotic passages which never seemed to sound pleasing, no matter how hard the chorus tried, the music began to reflect its beauty and untold charm, and gave everyone renewed hope that the outcome would be good. Yet this joyful mood was not to last: as soon as they progressed to the next section, where both chorus and solo voices, in ensemble with the orchestra, began to grapple with the immense polyphonic melange, many of the faces were once more shrouded in a veil of misery. When the most torrential waves of sound reached their peak, each individual clutched his part in despair, mercilessly shrieking out their notes, shattering the billowing air around them. The conductor leapt up from his chair in fury and thrashed his baton around like a man possessed – but all effort was in vain: no-one could hear themselves above the din, the infernal clamour shook the building to its foundations, the conductor, worn out, crumpled in his seat in dull resignation, allowing the frothing waves to crash wantonly above his head – one after the other gave up and, huddled in a corner, the composer sighed: “This just isn’t working!” 

The opera rehearsals were conducted by Bedrich Smetana, who gives a somewhat more sober account; even so, his words leave us in no doubt:

I took a look at the score of Dvorak’s opera King and Collier, which was scheduled for production at our theatre, but I realised that it could not be staged in its current form. However, since I did not want anyone to think I was rejecting it out of hand, I decided to proceed with it. During rehearsal, we were only able to address Act One, and with difficulty at that, since both the orchestral players and the singers complained that what was required of them was simply impossible.”

When the score was returned to Dvorak, the composer made an unusual decision: to write another musical setting for the libretto, of a wholly different character. It was thought for a long time that the original opera was simply unworkable. This view was only overturned twenty-five years after Dvorak’s death, when the work was finally performed by Otakar Ostrcil at Prague’s National Theatre.

general characteristics

From a modern viewpoint, the biggest obstacle presented by King and Collier isn’t the difficulty of the parts, but more the unsuitability of the devices used given the nature of the libretto. The simple, “folksy” and considerably naive story doesn’t lend itself to a complex polyphonic style. Even so, it is true that, even in his first setting of King and Collier, Dvorak did, in part, move away from the effusive rhapsodic tone of his first opera, Alfred. As regards his setting of the text, the composer adopted the principle set down by eminent Czech writer of her day, Eliska Krasnohorska, in her article for Hudebni listy in 1871, namely the requirement for a simple, “national style”. According to her text, which appeared three times in March 1871 (Dvorak began working on the first version of his opera in April, or somewhat later), the “natural declamation” of the Czech language was extremely important, and the author herself, in an attempt to put her theories into practice, collaborated closely with Smetana on his operas The Kiss, The Secret and The Devil’s Wall. At the time Dvorak began writing his opera, however, his experience with settings for Czech texts was limited merely to the song cycle Cypresses and Two Songs for Baritone (his previous opera Alfred was written to a German text). Despite a certain affectation in its expression, the first version of the opera nevertheless already manifests an attempt by the composer to create a fitting musical setting for his mother tongue.

premiere and subsequent performances

It was long thought that, in response to the failure of the opera, Dvorak burned the score, just as he had destroyed several other works on previous occasions. This assumption was maintained not only during his lifetime, but also for a twelve-year period after his death; Dvorak himself had never refuted it. It was only in 1916 that the legacy of a former member of the Neues deutsches Theater Orchestra in Prague was found to contain the autograph score of Acts One and Three and subsequently, in 1929, a complete version of the opera was discovered in the archive of the National Theatre. Ostrcil’s Prague production during the 1929/1930 season saw a total of six performances; since that time, the first version of the opera King and Collier has never been staged at the National Theatre (nor anywhere else presumably). There is no recording of the opera in existence.


King Matyas is out hunting and loses his way in the dense forests of Central Bohemia, not far from Krivoklat castle; he finds refuge with the collier Matej. Incognito, he spends an evening being entertained by a group of villagers and the collier’s daughter Liduska, whom he asks for a dance. Her suitor, the young collier Jenik, is affronted by this.

In the morning Jenik catches his beloved in the woods as she receives a kiss from the unwelcome guest. He won’t listen to the explanation that the kiss was merely an expression of thanks, since Matyas has promised to help Liduska prepare for her marriage to the young collier. Hurt by his beloved’s apparent infidelity, Jenik plans to join the army. The king keeps up his disguise and, invited by the collier and his family, he travels to Prague to visit the fair.

Collier Matej and his wife arrive in Prague for the fair and, to their surprise, they are taken to the Castle. Here they encounter Jenik, who has meanwhile been promoted to commander of the king’s guard. King Matyas reveals his identity and betroths Liduska to Jenik.