Amorous passion and death have enjoyed a fruitful relationship over the centuries, as artists have explored the many emotions and themes that bind them. As contrasting forces, love and death are linked via their association with the notion of abandoning the life we have known. We say we “fall in love,” as if stripped of will, as if we leave behind some part of ourselves. “Dying for love,” a familiar act depicted in many works of art, suggests the self-obliterating demands of love. Linked love and death provide the thematic focus for many works of music, literature, and art, as well as folk tales and folk wisdom.
In Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, drinking what they believe will be a fatal poison, the two lovers do in a sense die, losing the consciousness they have known, dying to their previous selves, and awakening to an experience of merging with and loving another. Wagner’s music conveys this experience in full, lush music that seems to lift above the earth.
From Shakespeare to the modern novel, you can find countless examples of characters who long for death as a cessation of the pain of love, who risk death in the hopes of love, or who seek to unite with a dead loved one. Romeo and Juliet take the risk of loving and dying with the same breath, submitting to whichever way the whims of fate take them.
The French have an expression, la petite mort, “the little death,” that names what we English-speaking often call the post-coital “afterglow.” We also use expressions like “love you to death ” and “until death do us part,” to express that tipping over from one state to the other.
In Dvorak’s The Spectre’s Bride, the yearning for love and the race toward death are knitted together through the maiden’s unfulfilled longings. The text draws attention to her painful solitary condition, having lost her father, mother and sister; but it is the loss of her husband to be, and with it the fulfillment of romantic desire, that make her pain unbearable.
In The Spectre’s Bride as in Tristan and Isolde, amorous feelings are unleashed at night and repressed by day. The maiden’s aloneness, in the dark of night, with only a lamp nearby, makes her vulnerable to romantic emotion. The opening bars of Dvorak’s cantata convey the only sound she can hear in her lonely chamber, the ticking clock. (Among other things, the stranger who knocks on her window brings a variety of sounds into her life. We hear it first in the specter music in the introduction, with its snippets of Wagnerian sweep and battle charge, portending things to come.)
The soprano’s solo describing preparation of the wedding gowns, to be worn on the wedding night when the lovers consummate their desire, underscores the frustration of desire. Description of the rituals associated with a village engagement and marriage, denied to the maiden, reinforces the image of her as isolated and alone. Lacking a husband and a family, she is not easily integrated into the community life. It is in this unnatural solitariness, that her mind gives way to fantasy. As an unwed woman, she is beset by longings while the satisfied village sleeps.
The maiden gives way to a romantic fantasy, triggered by the recollection of memory. Her sweetheart bade her to make a wreath, a garland entwined with rue (the herb of remembrance invoked by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) when she has finished sewing the wedding gowns. “Now my poor wreathe is withering,” she complains, an oblique reference to the suppression of her sexuality. Dvorak’s insistent ticking clock refers not only to the time the maiden has left to live, but also to the waning of her youth and the so-called fertility clock that is ticking away.
Out of this desperate desire for romantic closure, the maiden wishes for death, confessing; “For him I’d die so willingly.” She implores the Virgin Mary: “From him alone springs happiness; From distant lands bring back my love, or take my life so full of care.” The maiden should have put her hopes elsewhere, in the comfort of religion; Mary may have heard something akin to hubris, or putting man before God in her pleas.
By a modern reading of Erben’s poem, the specter is a projection of the maiden’s yearnings for love and sexual fulfillment. She imagines an erotic character with a strong predatory drive who seduces her to follow him. Dvorak’s music for the specter is both tender and vigorous, as the specter pursues his mission to take her with him.
After waiting so long for her man to return, the maiden gives way to a fantasy in which she is forced to give up her waiting for that man, who seems no longer to care if he is not dead. She imagines a man who wants her with fierce impatience and who possesses the force to carry her along with him toward the fulfillment of her desire. He is like a flash of fire breaking into her frozen, monotonous life.
She both fears and desires coupling, as a virgin with no experience of love. The specter’s first words are gentle and suggestively erotic: “ Are you asleep, love, are you awake? Ho! I have come love, for your sake!” In the rendition of their first encounter (4. Duetto), Dvorak shapes the music to resemble a romantic love scene in an opera.
When he knocks on her window, and impatiently bangs on the door of the tomb, the specter offers the psychoanalytical critic a field day. Dvorak underscores the insistence of the specter’s knocks with staccato “tuk, tuk, tuk” spaced out, sung in unison and repeated twice. When the specter orders the maiden to jump the chasm, the sexual innuendo is impossible to avoid, especially when the maiden confesses to Mary that she has been having wicked thoughts. Both the submission to sexual congress and letting go into death require a jumping off into the unknown.
The text brims with suggestions of sexual intrusion. The specter strips her down symbolically, reducing her inhibitions and moral sense, brutally casting aside her bible, her rosary and her cross as he urges her forward.
As she runs, spots of blood appearing on her feet and legs suggest sexual intrusion as well. “Over briars and cruel rocks her slender white feet often trod. On hawthorns and on jagged flints some signs were seen of drops of blood.” And further on, “Like sharp-edged knives the cat-tail grass her weary legs then cut and slashed.”
One might also hear masochism or at least the maiden’s imagining of both pain and pleasure, embedded in her fantasies. And virginal fears about the wedding night.
Sexual predators are much in the news these days. Interestingly, in the final analysis, it must be said that The Specter’s Bride, written by a man, plays out a male fantasy of what women fantasize. But it also comments on the dangerous impact of this fantasy, as the maiden is drawn back safely into the confines of community values by the end.
In the usual plot synopsis of The Spectre’s Bride, the maiden is saved at the end by appealing to the Virgin Mary. Actually, this is only partly true. By the time she arrives at the cemetery, she has figured out for herself what the guy is up to. She takes matters into her own hands, convincing him to jump the chasm before her, with no intention of following him. She transforms in that moment into the trickster (a popular figure in East European folk tales), changing the outcome by use of her own wits.
The villagers find fragments of wedding shifts in the graveyard mounds, the very garments in which the maiden had hoped to be married. In this final image, the logjam between love and death is resolved by the promise of eternal life, when the cares of this earthly sphere become meaningless. The maiden’s shredded garments comment on the transitory nature of earthly romantic expectations.
The villagers sound sanctimonious when they praise the maiden for the making the right move: “Maiden, you followed good advice when you appealed to God for aid.” And: “If you had acted differently, fearful the price you would have paid. Your white and graceful form would be just like the wedding shifts we see!”
The villagers could be admonishing any young girl of the village who is tempted to go astray. By preserving her virginity, she is embraced rather than cast out by the community, the latter the fate of many a seduced girl in the nineteenth century, who ended up on the streets “in tatters.”
Wedding plans and yawning graves, love and death, the temporary and the eternal, are once again cemented together in their age-old associations. Erben’s poem reflects how these associations are embedded in rural folklore, cultural rituals and community identity. Like Dvorak and other artists, Erben viewed the countryside as the true Bohemia, where Czech folklore and traditions had managed to survive, away from the foreign influences of the cities.
Dvorak enhances Erben’s poetic imagery, weaving colorful folk music motifs throughout his cantata. Often he relies on these motifs to set the scene, contrasting with the operatic solo parts. as on p. 13 of our score, “There in the humble dwelling place…” or the bass solo and coro, “This was the hour of deepest night…,” p.61.
If the Spectre’s Bride strikes some chorus ears as morbid and depressing, it is possible to hear it another way, as a celebration of the potency and enduring beauty of culture. And as a unique take on the age-old fascination with love and death, entwined preoccupations that run deep throughout artistic expression as well as our imaginings.
If the specter seduces the maiden, he also seduces us, choristers and audience, with his tender lyric come-ons, his brash energy, and his folkloric color. As he he runs ahead with leaps and bounds, he does it with Czech energy, almost as if dancing. It is also hard not to hear underlying pathos in his situation. He may be a foul fiend, but he has an urgent need that he needs to fulfill by the morning dawn.