The second half of the 19th century witnessed debates over musical aesthetics that not infrequently degenerated into intellectual warfare. Exponents of absolute music, meaning Brahms and his circle were contrasted with the programme music and opera camp, represented by Wagner and Liszt. A composer like Dvořák was allotted a place among the absolute music practitioners. That Brahms had a great respect for Wagner and that Wagner and Brahms's musical thinking and their respective musical problems were not so very different counted for little to their contemporaries.
There were numerous reasons why 19th century critics linked Dvořák with Brahms. In a sense, he was predestined: in 1875, as an unknown composer, he was awarded a three year scholarship by the Viennese State artistic curatorium, chaired by Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick, and thanks to his subsequent friendship with Brahms had access to Brahms's circle, enabling him to become one of the busiest and most popular composers of the era. In the 1880s he conquered Vienna, Paris and London and in 1892 travelled to New York. On his return in 1895, he assumed his place as the most important and celebrated composer in Bohemia where he remained a living legend.
It is interesting that at the peak of his success, with nine symphonies behind him, Dvořák altered his aesthetic paradigm and devoted the entirety of 1896 to the genre of symphonic poem, which he had avoided until then. When his first symphonic poem, The Water Goblin was premiered that same year, he caught a veritable cloud of flack from the feared critic Hanslick, the chief ideologist of the Brahms camp: “I fear that with this partially worked out programme music, Dvořák has strayed onto stony ground, and will end up in the same place as Richard Strauss. But I really would not like to mention Dvořák on the same page as Strauss since unlike the latter, Dvořák is a true musicians who has proven a thousand times already that he has no need for a programme and a description to enchant us with the power of his pure, absolute music. But after The Water Goblin, perhaps a quiet, friendly warning would not go amiss.”
This genre, invented by Liszt, generally chose some literary or fine art creation as its programme and would subordinate the musical form to the presentation of the story or idea. In 1896, Dvořák composed four symphonic poems one after the other Vodník (Water Goblin), Polednice (The Day Witch), Zlatý kolovrat (The Golden Spinning Wheel) and Holoubek (The Wild Dove), selecting the ballads of the same name by his favourite Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-1870) as their inspiration, and painting the narrated events in minute detail. Dvořák's innovation is not the musical narrative adhering to the events of the ballad but his decision to fashion individual musical themes so that the relevant lines of the ballad can be sung to the given theme. On the manuscript, Dvořák himself went so far as to write out the verse over the individual themes. This compositional technique was later analysed at length by Dvořák's younger colleague and huge admirer Leos Janáček (1854-1928) who also employed it in his own works on several occasions.
Erben's folk inspired ballads most closely resemble the gory tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Water Goblin is not some charming water nymph but an evil kobold who is the feared and merciless sovereign of the underwater world. The story is briefly as follows:
The Water Goblin is sitting on the top of a cliff in the cold moonlight and is sewing red boots for himself, preparing for his impending wedding. The next day, in a nearby hamlet, a young girl sets off to the lake with clothes for washing and although her mother has forebodings and tries to hold her back, the girl cannot be dissuaded. Arriving at the lake, she begins washing her clothes but just as the first garment touches the water, the little bridge under her feet collapses and she plunges into the water: she is captured by the Water Goblin and he marries her. A year later, the girl is sadly rocking her Goblin son, which arouses her husband's unstoppable anger. When the girl asks the Goblin to let her go so she can visit her mother whom she has not seen for so long, the Goblin agrees but with two conditions: the girl has to promise to return before the bells for vespers, nor must she must take the child with her. Her mother won't allow her back to the lake, and the Goblin becomes increasingly impatient as he waits for her return. Eventually he goes to knock on his mother in law's door. But no one opens it to him. In his rage, he stirs up an enormous storm and swears revenge: but all that it heard from within is a muffled puffing. When mother and daughter step from the house, they find lying on the threshold the beheaded corpse of the child.
We can reconstruct the relationship between the music and the tragic story from Dvořák's letters: the lively B minor theme that launches the work depicts the Water Goblin, and throughout the work, this melody appears in a variety of forms so that the construction of the work approaches a rondo form. The girl appears as a B flat major melody on clarinet, whilst the anxiety of the mother is painted with a chromatic violin tune. In the middle of the work, a stunningly beautiful lullaby introduces the goblin wife rocking her baby and later we can hear the vesper bells and the storm whipped up by the Water Goblin. The tragic story finishes in a hush, befitting the closing image of the ballad, with the motifs of the Water Goblin, girl and mother succeeding one another, gradually disintegrating. One of Dvořák's most tragic works concludes with a low register chord in B flat minor.
Dvořák, who could work at scarcely credible speed, sketched the work in only four days in early 1896, and wrote out the full score between January 24th and February 11th. It received its world premiere in the following November in Vienna: the Viennese Philharmonic was conducted by the legendary Hans Richter.