A Bouquet, a collection of 13 poems, and the text of Dvorak’s cantata, The Spectre’s Bride
In Czech, Dvorak’s title is not The Spectre’s Bride but the The Spectre’s Wedding Shirts, also referred to as wedding gowns. Our English translation is derived from the German Die Geisterbraut. I prefer Dvorak’s original, conveying a cultural artifact associated with Czech wedding customs and folklore. And, after all, the maiden does not become the specter’s bride.
The wedding shirt is both tangible and mysterious, and it carries metaphoric weight from start to finish. It also reflects the realities surrounding women’s roles in society and the attention to the fabric arts throughout history.
At the Legion of Honor’s recent art exhibition “Truth and Beauty.” John Everett Millais’ painting Mariana (circa 1850) was exhibited with lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem based on Mariana, a character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. “My life is dreary—he cometh not,” she said/”I am aweary, aweary, I wish that I were dead.” Abandoned by her fiancé, Angelo, who decamped when her dowry went down with a shipwreck, Mariana stretches in an expression of weariness. She supplants the denied achievement of love with the desire for the obliteration of all feeling in death.
In Millais’ painting Mariana is poised above an unfinished piece of needlework, the threaded needle still embedded in the cloth. Women spending the hours of waiting for a lover’s return by weaving, sewing, or knitting is an old association, stretching back as far as Penelope, who weaves at her loom until Ulysses returns from his long excursion abroad. This domestic occupation is soothing, helping to endure the long hours of waiting; Penelope also weaves to keep her unwanted suitors at bay until her husband returns, undoing her work each night while promising to choose a suitor when she has finished her work.
The Spectre’s Bride adds its own twist; the husband-to-be directs his intended to complete several tasks: to sow the flax, spin the yarn into thread, bleach the cloth, and embroider the wedding shirts, to assure her that he will return (but perhaps also to keep her busy). In Czech villages, it was customary for the bride-to-be to sew the bridegroom’s wedding shirt. In Erben’s poem, the maiden dutifully follows her intended’s instructions, preparing us for her too-easy compliance with the specter’s commands.
When the husband-to-be instructs the maiden to embroider the shirts, he acknowledges the creative aspect of the shirt-making, which not only includes measuring and designing the garments, but also adding the final decorative elements. Embroidering the shirts, the maiden puts her own personal mark on them. Sewn and woven objects have through the ages reflected the ambivalent nature of women’s status, at once products of domestic confinement as well as of creative expression.
In Greek mythology, weaving serves as a metaphor for fate and death (hence our word fatal). The three fates weave our destinies and decide how long a mortal will live. Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures a certain length, and Atropos cuts the thread as the end of life.
The wedding shirts in The Spectre’s Bride are put together and come apart; the work that took years to make undone in the space of hours, as if fated. The ticking clock in the opening section makes the subliminal suggestion that the maiden’s time on earth is running out, although she can only envision endless years of loneliness. This suggestion of a fated death is one of the pagan elements of the piece, countered by the Christian promise of an eternal life of the spirit.
The maiden carries the wedding shirts in a bundle as she follows the specter, and the specter denies all her loving effort by tossing the bundle over a wall into a grave. This action appears to be the final and most important tip-off that he is not who he is supposed to be, triggering the maiden’s refusal to leap over the wall after him.
At the end of The Spectre’s Bride, the bride shirts are in tatters, the maiden’s work completely undone, her carefully sewn shirts now deconstructed, reduced to shreds resembling the threads with which she started. The cast-away bundle of wedding shirts also suggests that she has erred by holding on too tightly to the cares and things of this world.
Unlike Erben’s poem, which is told solely through the voice of the narrator, Dvorak interweaves the points of view of the maiden, the specter, and the narrator, together with the instrumental music. Some sections intrude or crowd in on the ones that follow, to suggest the propelled motion toward the grave.
Making music has been compared to the fabric arts. An often repeated cliché is that we weave a tapestry of sound by joining our musical voices. It’s not a perfect metaphor but helpful for remembering that we don’t sing alone, but as part of a vocal ensemble. We spin the sounds in our heads, we form a voiced thread that we shape with others, and we choose color and texture, hopefully to create a seamless musical performance that will hold together. And don’t forget the embroidery.