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8.557478 - DVORAK: Suite in A Major, Op. 98 / Scottish Dances, Op. 41
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Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)

Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)

Complete Solo Piano Music, Volume 5

 

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 Polka, B. 3, seems to be Dvorák’s earliest surviving piano piece, probably written in 1860 after a visit to the Zlonice Fair, the mood of which is reflected in the mood of the piece.

 

The Scottish Dances, Op. 41, B. 74, were written in 1877. These consist of short eight-bar sections strung together into a single dance. They are fiery and energetic in character. The keyboard-writing is not so well suited to the piano, nor is it fully mature, suggesting that it was probably an occasional composition.

 

The Humoresque in F sharp major, B. 138, is a little miniature that was written for the publishing house Urbanek of Prague in 1884. It is a cheerful piece, which prefers the piano’s high register.

 

Dvorák’s Impromptu in D minor, B. 129, was an occasional composition for the magazine Humoristické Listy and was composed together with the Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65, in 1883. It resembles Dvorák’s Dumkas and was written shortly after the death of his mother, perhaps reflecting the pain of his loss in its moving middle section. The musical style leads naturally to a rubato performance apparent from the notation.

 

The Suite in A major, Op. 98, B. 184, was begun on New Year’s Day 1894 in New York, a few weeks after the première of Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”. He completed it in late February and early March. The suite form allowed Dvorák many artistic liberties. He could join the five movements in one work, although each has a completely different expression. The whole work is held together only by the initial theme, which returns at the end of the fifth piece. A year later Dvorák modified the suite for orchestra as well. The resulting American Suite became a popular and frequently performed work.

 

The two piano pieces Lullaby - Capriccio, B. 188, Op. posth. of 1894 are Dvorák’s last works for solo piano. Originally they were thought to be part of a suite. The Lullaby is a quiet, tender piece with a lively middle section. The Capriccio is a funny piece with a playful, high-spirited middle section which is almost reminiscent of a fairground atmosphere.

 

Stefan Veselka


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