Antonin Dvořák was born on September 8, 1841, in a village near Prague. His Bohemian heritage strongly influenced his music.
The word “dumka” means “thought” in Ukranian. As a musical term, it refers to the patterns of Slavic epic ballads, which were usually thoughtful or woeful. These folk music patterns became popular with Russian and Central European orchestral composers in the 1870s, especially Antonin Dvorak. In classical terms, Dumka has come to mean instrumental music with sudden changes from melancholy to exuberance.
In honor of the anniversary of his birth, here is a Dumka from his Piano Quintet, and a poem by B.H. Fairchild about an older couple listening to this music on the phonograph in their living room in Kansas.
by B. H. Fairchild
His parents would sit alone together
on the blue divan in the small living room
listening to Dvorak’s piano quintet.
They would sit there in their old age,
side by side, quite still, backs rigid, hands
in their laps, and look straight ahead
at the yellow light of the phonograph
that seemed as distant as a lamplit
window seen across the plains late at night.
They would sit quietly as something dense
and radiant swirled around them, something
like the dust storms of the thirties that began
by smearing the sky green with doom
but afterwards drenched the air with an amber
glow and then vanished, leaving profiles
of children on pillows and a pale gauze
over mantles and table tops. But it was
the memory of dust that encircled them now
and made them smile faintly and raise
or bow their heads as they spoke about
the farm in twilight with piano music
spiraling out across red roads and fields
of maize, bread lines in the city, women
and men lining main street like mannequins,
and then the war, the white frame rent house,
and the homecoming, the homecoming,
the homecoming, and afterwards, green lawns
and a new piano with its mahogany gleam
like pond ice at dawn, and now alone
in the house in the vanishing neighborhood,
the slow mornings of coffee and newspapers
and evenings of music and scattered bits
of talk like leaves suddenly fallen before
one notices the new season. And they would sit
there alone and soon he would reach across
and lift her hand as if it were the last unbroken
leaf and he would hold her hand in his hand
for a long time and they would look far off
into the music of their lives as they sat alone
together in the room in the house in Kansas.
B.H. Fairchild (1942 – ) is an American poet who grew up in small towns in Texas and Kansas. His poetry finds beauty in the stark landscapes of the plains, and in the lives of working-class people.
“The Dumka” from The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems, © 2014 by B.H. Fairchild, W.W. Norton & Company