The noble-hearted Lady Godiva in vain entreated her cruel husband to show more mercy to his suffering and oppressed people. In this she finally succeeded by complying with his condition, that she ride naked at noon through the streets of Coventry.
After completing the tone poem Toman und die Waldfee op. 40 – which was soon to acquire a reputation as a sort of “Czech Salome” – Vítězslav Novák was given a new and highly urgent commission. Jaroslav Vrchlický had written a play based on the story of Lady Godiva for the opening of the new Prague Municipal Theater, now the Vinohrady Theatre. The director of the new theatre, František Šubert, awarded two musical commissions for the opening occasion: Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859–1951) was engaged to write a Festive Ouverture – his Opus 70 – and Novák was to compose a Concert Overture to the play, in which Lady Godiva, during the 11th century, rode naked through the streets of Coventry at mid-day as a protest against a tax levied by her husband, Count Leofric of Coventry. The two protagonists are clearly contrasted in their music: Leofric makes his entry feroce in the key of C minor and Lady Godiva in E flat major, in a tender Andante. Lady Godiva´s womanly strength prevails over tyranny.
Novák wrote the overture Lady Godiva op. 41, one of his more powerful works, in the unbelievably short space of two days, on October 9 and 10, 1907. It was first performed on November 24, 1907, on the occasion of the opening of the new theatre by musicians from the Czech Philharmonic and the Orchestra of the National Theatre, conducted by Ladislav Čelanský. The score and a piano arrangement for four hands were published by Universal Edition in 1919.
English translation: Jonathan Price