About this Recording
8.553374 - DVORAK, A.: String Quartets, Vol. 4 (Vlach Quartet) - Nos. 10, 14

Antonfn Dvorak (1841 -1904)

Antonfn Dvorak (1841 -1904)

String Quartets V 01. 4

String Quartet No.10 in E flat Major, Op. 51

String Quartet No.14 in A flat major, Op. 105


Antonin Dvorak was born in 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy in Bohemia and some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should follow the example of his father and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end he left school at the age of eleven. There is no reliable record of his competence in butchery, but his musical abilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice, where he continued an apprenticeship started at home, learning German and improving his know ledge of music, rudimentary skill in which he had already acquired at home and in the village band and 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, from which he graduated two years later.


In the years that followed, Dvorak earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak which was to form the nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czech operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride had already been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvorak resigned from the theatre orchestra, to devote more time to composition, as his music began to draw some favourable local attention. Two years later he married and early 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 with the award of a Ministry of Education stipendium by a committee in Vienna that included the critic Eduard Hanslick and Brahms for a number of compositions submitted to the committee in 1874. The following year Dvorak failed to win the award, but was successful in 1876 and again in 1877. His fourth application brought the personal interest of Hanslick and Brahms and a connection with Simrock, the latter's publisher, who expressed a wish to publish the Moraviiln Duets and commissioned a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. These compositions won particular popularity. There were visits to Germany, as well as to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever at that time have won in Vienna. The series of compositions that followed secured him an unassailable position in Czech music and a place of honour in the larger world.


Early in 1891 Dvorak became professor of composition at Prague Conservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a venture which, it was hoped, would lay the foundations for American national music. The very Bohemian musical results of Dvorak's time in America are well known. Here he wrote his Ninth Symphony, From the New World, its themes influenced, at least, by what he had heard of indigenous American Indian and Negro music, his American Quartet and a charming Sonatina for violin and piano. In 1895 he settled at home again, returning to his work at the Prague Conservatory and writing in the following year a series of symphonic poems and before the end of the century two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.


The tenth of Dvorak's fourteen quartets, the Quartet in E flat major, Opus 51, was written in 1879 in response to a request from Jan Becker, leader of the Florentine Quartet, for a work of Czech inspiration. The work won the approval of Brahms and of Josef Hellmesberger of the Hellmesberger Quartet, who now found occasion to ask again for two of the earlier quartets, as he planned his recital series. The Slavonic Dances had had considerable success, provoking an unfortunate demand from his publisher Simrock for works of a similar kind. The quartet offers a richness of texture, a remarkable sonority, in an idiom that is essentially its own. The first movement is in sonata-form, with its traditional three sections of exposition, development and recapitulation. The lilt of the opening cello figure, however, sets an unmistakably Slavonic mood, the music impelled forward by the insistent folk-dance rhythms that appear, sometimes in accompanying parts. For the second movement the title Dumka is used. The word, of Ukrainian origin, implies a short piece of a melancholy cast, sometimes alternating with a more rapid section. Its use in European art-music originates with Dvorak himself. Contrast is here provided by a further element that is part of the theme dominant in the movement, now in the shape of a furiant, with its cross-rhythms. The opening brings a moving melody, accompanied by the plucked notes of the cello, the rhythmic ending of the melodic phrase highly typical of the cadences of folk-music. The slow movement proper is a Romanza in which the same richness of texture predominates, sonorities which, miraculously, never become muddy or turgid. Czech dance-forms return in the Finale, which is based on the rhythm of the skocna. The cheerful opening melody is contrasted with a second element of staider mould and the movement includes a fascinating polyphonic treatment of the material.


Dvorak's Quartet in A flat major, Opus 105, is the penultimate in published order, preceded there by the so-called American Quartet and followed by the Quartet in G major, Opus 106. These last two quartets were completed in 1895, after the composer's return from America, and published by Simrock the following year. Opus 105 was, in fact, started in New York and Dvorak resumed work on it with his teaching duties at Prague Conservatory, completing it on 30th December, after finishing Opus 106. The first movement, with its slow introduction of almost melancholy intensity, leads to a theme of great charm and further melodic material of typically Czech rhythmic and melodic character. This, with a hunting-call second subject, is worked out contrapuntally to splendid effect, the recapitulation abbreviating much of the first subject on its re-appearance. The approach to the conclusion is marked by a reference to the initial Adagio. The second movement, marked Molto vivace, is in the manner of a Czech furiant, a movement redolent of Bohemia in texture, rhythm and melody, with a trio section that derives its opening figure from part of the opening theme. The slow movement has one of those extended melodies of which Dvorak was such a master, its subtle harmonies giving it a characteristic flavour of its own. This is followed by a Finale that adds to its richness of invention by introducing an extra second subject, in the key of G flat, a theme that does not return when the material is recapitulated. The movement and the quartet as a whole may be heard as an expression of thanksgiving for the composer's return to his own country.




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