About this Recording
8.557357 - DVORAK, A.: String Quartets, Vol. 7 (Vlach Quartet) - Nos. 1, 6
English  German 

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 1 in A major, Op. 2 • String Quartet No. 6 in A minor, Op. 12

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, 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 former piano pupil, Anna Cermáková, 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. 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, 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 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 first attempt at writing a string quartet came in 1862, a year after his first String Quintet. He was now 21 and the composition followed the waiving of requirements for military service. The String Quartet in A major, Op. 2, the first of the fourteen he was to write, had its first public performance in 1888 and was published only in 1948. Dvořák made some cuts for the 1888 performance, and the Czech String Quartet made further revisions for their own performances. The present recording uses the composer’s revised version of 1888, with the principal cuts in the first and last movements.

The quartet opens with an Andante introduction, thematically related to the Allegro that follows in a movement that is in tripartite sonata form, the second subject, like the first, stated initially by the first violin. The central development duly explores other keys, before the first theme returns in recapitulation. The F sharp minor slow movement opens with emphatic chords, before the entry of the expressive main theme, introduced by the first violin, its second part echoed by the viola. The middle section of the movement is linked to the returning principal theme by a cadenza-like passage for the first violin. The Allegro scherzando encloses an F sharp minor Trio, modulating before the return of the opening. The Finale has a secondary theme that seems about to invite contrapuntal treatment. As the movement draws to a close the Andante from the beginning of the quartet returns, soon to be replaced by the lively principal theme of the last movement.

Dvořák’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 12, was written in November and December 1873, a period that included the composer’s wedding day. Apparently quite soon after the completion of this first version, he set about revising it, but never finished the work, which has since been completed by Jarmil Burghauser, who gives a detailed account of his procedure in the Supraphon Edition of the score, an attempted reconstruction of Dvořák’s revision of the quartet. The parts of the autograph that survive are the exposition and most of the development of the first movement, most of the second movement, after the introductory bars, the third movement, and parts of the last movement, combining the first and revised versions of the composer.

The first subject of the opening Allegro ma non troppo is made from the simplest material, in characteristic Bohemian rhythm. A transition hints at the key of B flat major, in which a secondary theme duly appears. After the central development the first theme returns, now entrusted to the viola, as the recapitulation takes its due course. The lilting F major second movement frames a B flat major Trio. This is followed by the masterly E major slow movement, and a finale woven from motifs of winning clarity, further evidence of the early formation of Dvořák’s characteristic musical language.

Keith Anderson


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