About this Recording
8.223131 - DVORAK: Slavonic Dances, Op. 72 / Slavonic Rhapsody

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Slavonic Dances, Op. 72 / Slavonic Rhapsody


Antonin Dvořák must be considered the greatest of the Czech nationalist composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and he certainly enjoys the widest international popularity. His achievement was to bring together music that derived its inspiration from Bohemia’s woods and fields with the classical traditions continued by Brahms in Vienna.

Dvořák was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where his father combined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that his son would later follow. As a child he played in his father’s village band, his early training as a violinist in the hands of the village schoolmaster. Schooling in Zlonice, where he was sent at the age of twelve, lodging with an uncle, allowed instruction in the rudiments of music from Antonin Liehmann. Two years later he was sent to Kamenice to learn German, but the following year the needs of his family made it necessary for him to return to Zlonice, where his parents had now settled, to help in the butcher’s shop. Liehmann continued his lessons and persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague. In 1857 he entered the Prague Organ School, where he was able to remain for two years.

Dvořák at first earned his living in Prague playing the viola in a band led by Karel Komsák, which was later to form part of the Provisional Theatre orchestra, established in 1862. He was to become principal viola-player and to continue as an orchestral player for the next nine years, for sometime under the direction of Smetana, who exercised considerable influence on Dvořák’s parallel work as a composer.

In 1871 Dvořák found himself able to resign from the Provisional Theatre orchestra and to marry. He took a position as organist at the church of St. Adalbert, taught a few pupils and otherwise devoted himself to composition. It was through the encouragement of Brahms, four years later, that his music was brought gradually to the attention of a much wider public. In particular Brahms was able to persuade Simrock to publish Dvorák’s Moravian Duets. Their success was followed by the publisher’s request for a further set, the first series of Slavonic Dances, Opus 46, also composed for piano duet, but orchestrated at the same time by the composer. The same year, 1878, saw the composition of the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Opus 45.

From this time onwards Dvořák’s fame was to grow and he was to win particular popularity in Germany and in England, visiting the latter country on several occasions and fulfilling commissions for choral works for Birmingham and Leeds. In 1891 he was appointed professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and the following year accepted an invitation to go to New York as director of the new National Conservatory. The period in America gave rise to one of his best known works, the Symphony “From the New World”. By 1895 he was back again in Prague, teaching at the Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. He died two years later, This brief account of Dvořák’s life ignores the considerable amount of music he wrote, compositions of much more diversity than is always apparent from modern concert programmes, which confine their attention to the unmistakably popular. Nevertheless even the most frequently played of his works are not staled by custom. The Slavonic Dances, for example, retain all their freshness and life, qualities shared by the more extended Slavonic Rhapsodies.

Dvořák wrote his second set of Slavonic Dances in 1886, largely at the prompting of his publisher Simrock, who would only agree to the terms the composer demanded for the publication of the Seventh Symphony if he added a further group of dances for piano duet and some songs. The Opus 72 dances are rather less Bohemian in inspiration and flavor than the dances that form Opus 46.

The second set of Slavonic Dances opens with a Slovak Odzmek, a lively dance with some relaxation in the middle section. It is followed by a Polish Mazurka. The third dance is a Bohemian Skocná, followed by a Ukrainian Dumka that varies in key between E-Flat minor and D-Flat major. The fifth of the dances is again from Bohemia, a Spasírka, with a ceremonial introduction. These dances are followed by a Polonaise, a Serbian Kolo and a Bohemian Sousedská, the last with much of the waltz about it.

Dvořák dedicated his three Slavonic Rhapsodies of 1878 to a critic, a rare expression of gratitude by a composer to a maligned profession, after an enthusiastic review of his first set of Slavonic Dances. Described as more Slav than rhapsody, the second of the set, in G minor, may lack the appeal of the more popular third, but offers music of characteristically vital energy, relaxing into an easy-going waltz, where a more academic composer might have preferred to develop the material The Scherzo capriccioso, Opus 66 was written between March and May 1883. The work is adventurous in harmony, opening with a B-Flat Major horn call that settles, after 40 bars, into the key of D-Flat major, the key of the work. There is a snatch of a G major waltz from the violins, shifting in key, and a D Major Trio section, and the Scherzo includes two sections in which the material is developed, making the whole cheerful piece a musically more substantial affair than the title might suggest.

Keith Anderson

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