About this Recording
8.553375 - DVORAK, A.: String Quartets, Vol. 5 (Vlach Quartet) - Cypresses / String Quartet Movement in F Major / 2 Waltzes / Gavotte

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
String Quartets Vol. 5
Cypresses, B.152 • Quartet Movement in F major, B.120
Two Waltzes, Op. 54 • Gavotte, B. 164


Antonín Dvořák 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 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, Dvořák 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 Dvořák 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 Dvořák in 1874, when his application for an Austrian government award brought his music to the attention of Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick in Vienna. The granting of this award for five consecutive years was of material assistance. It was through this contact that, impressed by Dvořák'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 Dvořák'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 Dvořák 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 Jeanette 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, Dvořák'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 Dvořák'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 Dvořák was home for good, resuming work at the Prague Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. His final works included as eries of symphonic poems and two more operas, to add to the nine he bad already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.

During the space of just over two weeks in July 1865 Dvořák wrote a set of eighteen songs, settings of words by the Moravian poet Gustav Pfleger, Cypriše (Cypresses). Romantic in text and intention, the songs were dedicated to the nationalist composer Karel Hendl, whom he bad first known at the Organ School, but aimed towards his pupil, the young actress Josefína Cermáková, elder sister of Anna Cermáková, the singer who was later to become his wife, and eventually published in the 1880s in three collections. The composer, in a letter to the publisher Simrock, described the songs as stemming from the feelings of a young boy in love. 1865 found Dvořák engaged in a great deal of activity as a composer, with two symphonies and an unorchestrated cello concerto written. It was during the month starting on 21 April 1887 that Dvořák turned his attention to the arrangement of twelve songs from Cypresses for string quartet, providing a series of attractive miniatures in a highly characteristic idiom. These were only published in 1921. In 1887 he was at the height of his powers. The year before he bad been in England to conduct a performance of his oratorio Saint Ludmila, commissioned by the Leeds Festival, and now he bad completed his Mass in D, a private commission, and the Terzetto, while the Piano Quintet in A major was to follow in the autumn.

The first of the songs arranged for string quartet was the sixth of the song-cycle, 'Já vím, že v sladké nadeji' (I know that on my love), in D flat major and marked Moderato. This sets the mood for much of what is to follow, with an assured handling of the medium, based on practical experience. The second of the quartet set, the third of the songs, 'V tak mnohém srdci mrtvo jest' (Death reigns) is in F minor, marked Allegro, ma non troppo. It starts with a sense of urgency, over accompanying triplet figuration from the middle strings. At the centre there is momentary relaxation of tension and once again as the same material returns, before the movement comes to an end. 'V té sladké moci ocí tvých' (When thy sweet glances), the third quartet piece and second song, is in G major, marked Andante con moto, and with a tendency towards E minor and to pentatonic melodic contours. It is followed by the Poco adagio E flat major 'Ó, naší Iásce nekvete to vytoužené štestí' (Never will love lead us), perfectly suited to the new medium. The cello suggests a gentle lilting motion to the arrangement of the twelfth song, 'Zde hledím na tvuj drahý list' (Here gaze I), an A flat major Andante. 'Ó, zlatá ruže spanilá' (O charming golden rose) is the seventh of the songs. In E major and marked Andante moderato, it is characteristic of the composer in its harmonies and tender in mood. There is no great change of feeling in the seventh of the quartet arrangements, the ninth song, 'Kol domu se ted' potácím' (I wander oft), an E minor Andante con moto, underpinned by the cello initial insistence on tonic and dominant. Here the first violin melody is pointed by the agitated repeated notes of the second violin. The fourteenth song of the original cycle, 'Zde v lese u potoka' (In deepest forest glade), restores the E major key. Marked Lento, it moves forward to more intense drama, in true string quartet idiom. The key of A flat major is used for the fourth song, 'Ó, duše drahá, jedinka' (Thou only dear one), marked Moderato, which gives pleasing prominence to viola and second violin. 'Tam stojí stará skála' (There stands an ancient rock), in E flat major and marked Andante maestoso, the sixteenth of the original cycle, introduces a brief note of drama, moving forward to a gentle conclusion. With the seventeenth song, 'Nad krajem vévodí lehký spánek' (Nature lies peaceful), an Allegro scherzando in A major, there is an over-all sense of joy in a movement that adds variety to the set, which ends with an arrangement of the eighteenth and last song, 'Ty se ptáš, proc moje zpevy' (You are asking why), a D minor Allegro animato. A feeling of urgent questioning alternates with answers of greater serenity, the mood in which the cycle ends.

Dvořák wrote his Quartet Movement in F major, B. 120, in the first nine days of 1881, discarding it for the moment to write his Quartet in C major, Opus 61, when Vienna newspapers reported that a new quartet by him was to be performed on 15 December by the Hellmesberger Quartet. At this time the composer was preoccupied with his opera Dimitrij, but a quartet, Opus 61, was duly completed in the space of two weeks, to receive its first performance in Berlin on 2 November 1882. The F major movement was never continued, but remained in manuscript, to be first performed in Prague in 1945 and first published in 1951. Marked Allegro vivace, the movement starts with what sounds like a slow introduction, but without change of tempo this leads to material of seamless melodic invention. The exposition, which ends in the key of the closing subject, A minor, is repeated and there is a central development, before the eventual return of the opening figuration in the tonic key and the recapitulation. The movement ends in gentle serenity, but remains highly characteristic of its composer throughout, immediately recognisable in its rhythms, its textures and its melodic content.

Dvořák probably made the arrangement of his Two Waltzes, Opus 54, for string quartet in February 1880, presumably immediately after completing the set of eight waltzes for piano in January that year, highly saleable rnaterial for his publisher Simrock. The first of the two arranged, in A major and marked Moderato, starts with a tenderly lilting melody, used to frame contrasting episodes of greater urgency. The second waltz, in D major and marked Allegro vivace, is introduced by the first violin, with an opening section that provides the principal melody to frame a contrasting episode. There is a Trio that allows the first violin free play, before the return of the principal waltz theme.

Dvořák's Gavota, B. 164, was written in August 1890. Scored for three violins, it was intended for a publication, Mladý houslista (The Young Violinist), edited by Václav Juda Novotuý, a former violinist with the Czech Provisional Theatre, translator, writer, composer, and close friend of Smetana and Dvořák, and including pieces by Karel Bendl, Josef and Josef Bohurnil Foerster, Novotny and Karel Weis. Dvořák was busy this year with visits to England, Germany and Russia. He was awarded a doctorate by the University of Prague and elected a member of the Czech Academy of Art and Science. At the same time he was occupied in the composition of his Requiem, commissioned for Birmingham. Nevertheless he found time to write the Gavotte, a charming and perfectly crafted piece for young players. In the key of G minor and marked Allegretto scherzando, it includes a contrasting Trio in B flat major. The piece was written on 19 August 1890, while the composer was at the small country house he had bought in 1884 at Vysoká, on the estate of his sister-in-law Josefina's husband, Count Václav Kounic.

Keith Anderson


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