Antonín Dvořák wrote his Te Deum in New York in 1892 in response to a commission from the National Conservatory of Music to mark the 40th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Since the text actually intended, The American Flag (after a poem by Rodman Drake) had not yet been completed, Dvořák ultimately chose the Latin hymn of praise Te Deum to set to music as an appropriate liturgical form for the festive occasion. The sketch for the work was finished in barely a week. Within a month Dvořák had finished the cantata. On 28 July 1892, he appended the dedication “composed to honour the memory of Columbus”.
After a fire in a theatre prevented the opening ceremony originally planned for the Columbus anniversary on 12 October 1892, the Te Deum was featured as the centrepiece of a concert nine days later, on 21 October, in Carnegie Hall, which had been opened one year previously. With Dvořák conducting and a choir of more than 250 singers, the work was given its first public performance. That this was more a concert piece than a liturgical composition can be seen in the unique treatment of the text and the large-scale structure with four parts, contrasted to great effect and on a clearly symphonic scale. Powerfully dramatic, it is no accident that the work is reminiscent of composers such as Giuseppe Verdi and Anton Bruckner, and is said to have prompted Johannes Brahms to joke: “The Te Deum must have been intended to celebrate the destruction of Vienna and Berlin by the Bohemians, and seems to me highly suited to that purpose.”
The two performances of the work on 22 and 24 September with which the Wiener Symphoniker are opening this year’s season are the first ever performances of the piece in the Wiener Konzerthaus. The orchestra has secured the services of a specialist in this work, the Czech conductor Tomáš Netopil, who was trained in the famous Finnish conducting school of Jorma Panula, and this attention to detail has also been extended to the thoughtful and astute way the Te Deum is embedded in the concert programme.
Before Nepotil and the orchestra conclude the prestigious Dvořák Prague International Music Festival with the work, they will incorporate it into a Fridays@7 concert on 22 September along with the composer’s Symphony No. 6, whose existence is owed in part to two great musical figures who settled in Vienna: the conductor Hans Richter, who commissioned the work in 1880, and Johannes Brahms, whose Symphony No. 2 in D major provided the essential template. Brahms’ Tragic Overture for orchestra appropriately rounds off the programme of the second Viennese concert on 24 September.