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8.557477 - DVORAK: Humoresques, Op. 101 / Silhouettes, Op. 8
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Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)

Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)

Complete Solo Piano Music, Volume 4

 

Antonín Dvorák was born in 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near the Bohemian town of Kralupy, some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should at first have been expected to follow the family trade, as the eldest son. His musical abilities, however, soon became apparent and were encouraged by his father, who in later years abandoned his original trade, to earn something of a living as a zither player. After primary schooling he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice and was there able to acquire the necessary knowledge of German and improve his abilities as a musician, hitherto acquired at home in the village band and in church. Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission in 1857 to the Prague Organ School, where he studied for the following two years.

 

On leaving the Organ School, Dvorák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzák, an ensemble that was to form the nucleus of the Czech Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor at the theatre, where his operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride had already been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvorák resigned from the orchestra, devoting himself more fully to composition, as his music began to attract favourable local attention. In 1873 he married a singer from the chorus of the theatre and in 1874 became organist of the church of St Adalbert. During this period he continued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a series of compositions that gradually became known to a wider circle.

 

Further recognition came to Dvorák in 1874, when his application for an Austrian government award brought his music to the attention of the critic Eduard Hanslick in Vienna and subsequently to that of Brahms, a later member of the examining committee. The granting of this award for five consecutive years was of material assistance. It was through this contact that, impressed by Dvorák’s Moravian Duets entered for the award of 1877, Brahms was able to arrange for their publication by Simrock, who commissioned a further work, Slavonic Dances, for piano duet. The success of these publications introduced Dvorák’s music to a much wider public, for which it held some exotic appeal. As his reputation grew, there were visits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than might initially have been accorded a Czech composer in Vienna.

 

In 1883 Dvorák had rejected a tempting proposal that he should write a German opera for Vienna. At home he continued to contribute to Czech operatic repertoire, an important element in re-establishing national musical identity. The invitation to take up a position in New York was another matter. In 1891 he had become professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and in the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. With the backing of Jeannette Thurber and her husband, this institution was intended to foster American music, hitherto dominated by musicians from Europe or largely trained there. Whatever the ultimate success or failure of the venture, Dvorák’s contribution was seen as that of providing a blue-print for American national music, following the example of Czech national music, which owed so much to him. The musical results of Dvorák’s time in America must lie chiefly in his own music, notably in his Symphony ‘From the New World’, his American Quartet and American Quintet and his Violin Sonatina, works that rely strongly on the European tradition that he had inherited, while making use of melodies and rhythms that might be associated in one way or another with America. By 1895 Dvorák was home for good, resuming work at the Prague Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. His final works included a series of symphonic poems and two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.

 

Keith Anderson

 

 

Dvorák’s Piano Music

 

Dvorák is better known for his orchestral works and his chamber music than for anything he wrote for the piano, although one of the Humoresques retains a place in popular repertoire.

 

The Eight Humoresques, Op. 101, B. 187, are Dvorák’s last great work for piano. They were composed between 1892 and 1895, immediately after the Ninth Symphony and the Sonatina in G major, Op. 100, for violin and piano. During his stay in America between September 1892 and Apri1 1895, Dvorák noted down thematic ideas in his sketchbook again and again. In summer 1894, while on vacation at his country home Vysoká in the present Czech Republic, he had the idea of writing some pieces for piano in which he would use these themes.

 

The Humoresques are characterized by an American influence, recognisable in the pentatonic character of the melodic pattern, the reduced seventh step of the minor key, and additionally, as the title already suggests, in a sense of good humour which is rare in Dvorák’s piano works. He called the first draft of the Humoresques “New Scottish Dances” following the Scottish Dances, Op. 41, of 1877. In composing the work, however, he abandoned the original rondo form, even though it remained in duple time, by allowing it to become freer in form and by redesigning the order of the sections for each piece. He therefore replaced the original title.

 

The Six Mazurkas, Op. 56, B. 111, were originally conceived, as were the Humoresques, as a new sequence of Scottish dances, but Dvorák finally changed their title. They were composed in 1880 during a very fruitful period, which brought Symphony No. 8 and the Waltzes, Op. 54, among other works. The Mazurkas offer rich, and original music full of dreamy elegance as well as harmonious and melodic uniqueness.

 

The basic material for the cycle Silhouettes Op. 8, B. 98, completed in 1879, had already been composed in 1865, in the song-cycle Cypresses and the first two symphonies, Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 3, The Bells of Zlonice, and Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 4.

 

Their peculiarity lies in the mixture of intimate and passionate pieces. Dvorák possibly originally wrote the song-cycle Cypresses as an expression of his unrequited love for Josefina C˘ermáková, whose sister Anna he married in 1873. Cypresses then formed the basis for the Silhouettes, in which he developed and reprocessed various themes again. The main theme of the first Silhouette, which returns in the twelfth, forms a circle which is the artist’s reflection of a phase of life that had been essential for him.

 

Stefan Veselka


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