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8.555378 - DVORAK: String Quintet Op. 77 / Miniatures
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Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)

String Quintet in G major, Op. 77 • Intermezzo • Drobnosti • Andante appassionato

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. Dvorák’s time in America influenced his own, notably 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.

Dvorák completed his String Quintet in G major, for two violins, viola, cello and double bass, in 1875, and entered it for the competition of the UmeĆ¹lecká Beseda under the title My People. It had its first performance on 18th March, given by Frantisek Ondricek and members of the society. It was Ondricek, a protégé of Wienawski and Paris pupil of Massart, who gave the first performance of Dvorák’s Violin Concerto in 1883. The work originally had five movements and was numbered Opus 18, but was published by Simrock in 1888, misleadingly numbered as Opus 77. Dvorák dropped one of the movements, the Intermezzo that had had its origin in a movement in the Quartet in E minor, a work conjecturally dated to 1870 or earlier. There was a string orchestra version of the movement in 1875 and a final metamorphosis into the Nocturne in B major for String Orchestra, B. 47, published in 1883.

The first movement, marked Allegro con fuoco, allows the viola, followed by the violins, to introduce the motif from which the principal thematic material of the movement is drawn. The second subject appears at first in F major, introduced by the second violin, accompanied only by the viola and cello. The characteristic rhythms and motifs of the exposition are explored in the central development and duly return in varied recapitulation. The energetic Bohemian Scherzo, in E minor, with its more subdued central section, frames a C major Trio of contrasting rhythm and mood, while the C major slow movement, which shifts to E major in its central section, brings delicate interplay between the instruments. The Finale, in the expected form of a rondo, is thematically related to earlier movements from the start, with hints of Bohemia that are less overt than those to be found in works of greater maturity. The original second movement, the Intermezzo, omitted by the composer and more familiar as the Nocturne, Op. 40, for violin and piano, but here included, is gently lyrical and meditative in character, if not entirely characteristic of the composer.

In January 1887 Dvorák wrote his Terzetto for two violins and viola, intending it for the amateur violinist Josef Kruis, a chemistry student lodging in the same house in Prague, and his teacher, the violinist Jan Pelikán. When Kruis found the Terzetto technically beyond him, Dvorák wrote music of a simpler cast, Drobnosti, Op. 75a, variously described as Miniatures or Bagatelles. The four little pieces were later arranged for violin and piano under the title Romantic Pieces, Op.75, a version in which they have become widely known. The opening Cavatina is followed by a busily emphatic Capriccio, a Romance and a final melancholy Elegie with elements of recitative for the first violin.

Dvorák wrote his String Quartet in A minor, Op. 12, in the winter of 1873, but the work seems not to have met with the important approval of the violinist Antonín Bennewitz and his colleagues then closely concerned with the promotion of chamber music in Prague. The quartet was at first cast in one continuous movement, but the revision into a more conventional work of four movements was not completed. The Andante appassionato, originally part of the quartet, offers effective string-writing, growing in intensity of feeling as it proceeds, before the returning serenity of its ending.

Keith Anderson


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