Music has enormous power to lay new landscapes before us, to paint lovely pictures, and to tell stories. One of the musical forms created especially for this purpose in the middle of the 19th century – at a time when it was believed that after Beethoven, big symphonies could no longer be written – is called the symphonic poem. It was invented by Franz Liszt, who soon had numerous successors in Russia, France, and especially among Czech composers: Bedřich Smetana, of course, followed a bit later by Antonín Dvořák with his five symphonic poems, mostly based on texts by Karel Jaromír Erben.
Dvořák began composing The Water Goblin and The Noon Witch just a few days after he appeared in Rudofinum’s Dvořák Hall on 4 January 1896 to conduct the first concert in the history of the Czech Philharmonic. The fact that the world première that November took place not in Prague, but in London is telling about Dvořák’s fame.
Dvořák’s friend Leoš Janáček, the conductor of the Brno premières of many of his works, was a great admirer of Dvořák’s symphonic poems: “As yet, I know of no orchestral symphonic poems that speak in a direct instrumental language to the degree of definiteness, clarity, and truth in their waves of melodies (…) as The Water Goblin.”