About this Recording
8.557352 - DVORAK: American Suite / Silent Woods / Prague Waltzes
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Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
American Suite • Silent Woods • Prague Waltzes • Mazurka for violin and orchestra

 

Antonín Dvořák 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. After primary schooling he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice and was there able to gain the then 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 former piano pupil, Anna Čermáková, sister of an actress from the theatre and daughter of a Prague goldsmith, 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 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 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, an institution intended to foster American music, hitherto dominated by musicians from Europe or largely trained there. 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 compositions, notably in his Symphony ’From the New World’, his American Quartet and American Quintet, his Violin Sonatina, and, to a lesser extent, his so-called American Suite, 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 a series of symphonic poems and two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.

Dvořák’s orchestral works include a number of arrangements of compositions originally designed for smaller forces. His Mazurka, Op 49, was written in February 1879 for violin and piano and also effectively arranged by the composer for violin and orchestra. The work was dedicated to the violinist Pablo Sarasate and first heard in Prague in the following month.

The Rondo in G minor for cello and orchestra, Op 94, was written in October 1893, an arrangement of the earlier work for cello and piano that he had completed in December 1891. It was designed for the cellist Hanuš Wihan, who had joined the teaching staff of Prague Conservatory in 1887. It was to Wihan that Dvořák dedicated his Cello Concerto of 1895, and with him that he played the original version of the Rondo in a Prague concert in March 1892. The work is a fine vehicle for a virtuoso performer, and a testimony to Wihan’s technical ability.

Dvořák’s Seven Interludesscored for small orchestra, were written in January and February 1867, dating, therefore, from a period when the composer was employed as a viola-player, playing operas from Italian and French repertoire, and, under Smetana, now starting to tackle more Czech works. There is something patently operatic and dramatic in the first of the pieces. The same mood informs the second, while the third offers a contrast, while still preserving the conception of an operatic entr’acte, in an idiom that would have been very familiar to the composer in the orchestra pit. The fourth is a livelier piece, an introduction to a cheerful finale, and the fifth suggests a triumphant and happy scene to come. The sixth piece has an air of gentle lyricism, while the seventh returns to the dramatic contrasts of the first, demonstrating, like the other pieces. Dvořák’s skill in handling the orchestra, however conventional the musical material.

Klid or Waldesruhe (Silent Woods) was originally the fifth of a set of six pieces for piano duet. Ze Šumavy (From the Bohemian Forest), completed in January 1884. Dvořák arranged it for cello and orchestra, for the primary purpose of a concert tour with Hanuš Wihan, and it was included in the Prague programme of March 1892, in a version for cello and piano.

Dvořák, it will be recalled, had years of experience in lighter music, as an orchestral player in Karel Komzák’s band. His Polonaise in E flat major was written in late December 1879 and heard on 6 January 1880, among the celebrations, usual for the Epiphany. His Five Prague Waltzeswere written a week or so earlier, to be heard on 28 December. The Polka ill B flatmajor was written in December 1880 for a Prague students’ ball on 6 January 1881.

The Nocturne was arranged first for violin and piano from the Andante religoso slow movement of String Quartet No 4 in E minor, and forms the basis of the string orchestra version, apparently completed in 1875. It was published in 1883 and heard the following year in London, when it was included in a programme conducted by Dvořák at the Crystal Palace, where Elgar was soon to have his first work played in London.

The Suite in A major for piano was completed in the spring of 1894 and is sometimes known as the American Suite It was arranged a year later by Dvořák for orchestra, before his return from America, and while he thought well of it, critics have generally found little good to say of it, although fashions seem now to be changing. The first of the five movements has touches of the American, both in the opening motif and the rhythmic and melodic ending of the theme. There is a stormy C sharp minor introduction to the second movement, before the appearance of a gentler central theme, related to the opening figure of the first movement. The musicologist Michael Beckerman has drawn attention to other motivic connections between the movements, apparent again in the main theme of the third movement. Contours familiar from Dvořák’s other compositions of the American period are heard in the fourth movement and in the final Allegro, linked to the others in its main theme and in the pentatonic element with which it ends.

Keith Anderson


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