About this Recording
8.553377 - DVORAK, A.: String Quartets, Vol. 6 (Vlach Quartet) - Nos. 5, 7

Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)

Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)

String Quartets Vol. 6

String Quartet No. 5 in F minor, Op. 9

String Quartet No. 7 in A minor, Op. 16


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 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 at 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, Dvorak earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak, 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 Dvorak 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 Dvorak 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 Brahms, impressed by Dvorak's Moravian Duets entered for the award of 1877, 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 Dvorak'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 Dvorak 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 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, Dvorak'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 Dvorak'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 Dvorak 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.


It was in 1873, the year of his marriage, that Dvorak wrote his String Quartet in F minor, Opus 9. The year had brought mixed success. His patriotic Hymnus, The Heirs of the White Mountain, had been favourably received and a revised version of his opera The King and the Charcoal-Burner had been accepted by Smetana for performance at the Czech Provisional Theatre. The opera, however, was dropped after a first rehearsal, to be revised in a less Wagnerian style for performance in the following season. He started the quartet in September and had completed the work by early October, a month before his wedding. While the four earlier quartets had had no public performance, the new work was initially accepted by the quartet led by Antonin Bennewitz, with Deutsch, Hfunaly and Hegenbarth, who then found fault with the style of the work, as they did with Smetana's autobiographical quartet, with which it has something in common. It is thought that the first performance eventually took place only in 1930, when the score became available. Dvorak, however, drew on the slow movement for his Romance for solo violin and orchestra, completed by 1877 and published two years later.


The extent to which the Quartet in F minor may be autobiographical is arguable. It has been suggested that the work suggests doubts and their resolution, in its progress. The first movement, in its slower introduction, offers the substance of the first subject and the rhythmic figure, with its answer, on which much that follows will depend. This is soon interrupted by a series of passionate arpeggios, another recurrent element. The material is duly elaborated, with a second subject of greater serenity, a central development and varied recapitulation. The plucked notes of the cello accompany the gentle first violin melody of the slow movement. There is contrast in a central section, before the return of the main theme and its final transformation into A flat minor, then A flat major. There is a syncopated accompaniment to the Tempo di valse, with its F major trio section. The last movement opens dramatically, before the principal melody is heard from the viola. Further melodic material appears, with a distinctly Slavonic flavour to it, as the movement unwinds.


The String Qual1et No.7 in A minor, Opus 16, was written in the space of ten days and completed on 24th September 1874. It was published the following year and heard in 1878 in a public performance by the Bennewitz Quartet. Classical in its structure, the first movement opens with the principal theme, to which the second offers a contrast, The central development leads to a varied recapitulation, with the secondary theme in A major, before the A minor conclusion. The F major slow movement has a secondary theme that provides variety in key and rhythm, before the return of the main theme. A minor returns with the capricious scherzo and its C major trio, the latter more typical of the composer. Fierce dynamic changes mark the last movement, with its repeated rhythmic triplet figure, to which there is suaver melodic contrast. It is the triplet figuration that finally predominates in the closing section, marked Grandioso.


Keith Anderson



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