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8.557474 - DVORAK: Theme with Variations, Op. 36 / Waltzes, Op. 54
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Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)

Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)

Complete Solo Piano Music, Volume 1


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, which owed so much to him. The musical results of Dvorák’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 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.


Keith Anderson



Dvorák’s Piano Music


Dvorák is better known for his orchestral works and his chamber music than for anything he wrote for the piano, although one of the Humoresques retains a place in popular repertoire.


The Two Minuets, Op. 28, B. 58, were written in 1876-77, presumably originally as orchestral pieces, perhaps commissioned by a Prague organization for a ball. They are graceful Ländler, composed in a chain-like structure, each consisting of five sections and a coda.


The Dumka, Op. 35, B. 64, appeared together with the Theme with Variations, Op. 36 and the Piano Concerto, Op. 33, in 1876. It is Dvorák’s first piece under the title Dumka, to be followed by more famous pieces, including the so-called ‘Dumky’ Trio, Op. 90, and the Dumka from the String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 51. It is an elegiac, deeply-felt work, with a very taut arrangement of voices that at times almost give the impression of a quartet. It can be understood as an elegiac antithesis to the more cheerful and lyrical variations.       


The Theme with Variations is among Dvorák’s longest works for the piano. The theme is laid out generously and lyrically over 45 bars. Here the composer had much space to experiment, exemplified in the first two variations, structured in triplets and in demisemiquavers. The third variation is ballad-like and resembles the Dumka in its mood. The fourth and fifth are highly demanding variations which require much practice from the pianist. Dvorák himself suggested that the fifth variation would be better left out because of its great difficulty. In contrast to this octave variation stands the lovely, chorale-like sixth variation, one of Dvorák’s musically deepest ideas. After an exuberant seventh and the loud, vigorous chords of the last variation, the work closes as it began in a song-like, lyrical atmosphere.


The Three Album Leaves are all short occasional compositions in highly varying moods. They were written during the years 1880-1888. Otázka (Question), B. 128a and the Album Leaf in E flat major were written in guest-books for friends by Dvorák.


Dvorák wrote his Eight Waltzes, Op. 54, B. 101, in 1880. Unlike the waltzes of Brahms and Chopin, which he did not want to imitate, Dvorák’s waltzes, originally commissioned for an anniversary ball, impress by their mood changes from melancholy to extreme joy in proportionally short sequences. These mood changes create the special magic of the waltzes. Dvorák’s high opinion of this work can be seen in the fact that he arranged the first and fourth Waltzes for string quartet after their completion.


Stefan Veselka

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