DVORAK: Cypresses / String Quartet Movement in F Major (Václav Zamazal) (Naxos: 8.553375)
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Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
String Quartets Vol.5
Cypresses, B.152 Quartet Movement in F major, 8.120
Two Waltzes, Op.54 Gavotte, 8.164
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 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, Dvorak earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Kornzak, 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, impressed by Dvorak'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 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 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 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 as eries of symphonic poems and two more operas, to add to the nine he bad already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.
During the space of just over two weeks in July 1865 Dvorak wrote a set of eighteen songs, settings of words by the Moravian poet Gustav Pfleger, Cyprise (Cypresses). Romantic in text and intention, the songs were dedicated to the nationalist composer Karel Hendl, whom he bad first known at the Organ School, but aimed towards his pupil, the young actress Josefína Cermáková, elder sister of Anna Cermáková, the singer who was later to become his wife, and eventually published in the 1880s in three collections. The composer, in a letter to the publisher Simrock, described the songs as stemming from the feelings of a young boy in love. 1865 found Dvorak engaged in a great deal of activity as a composer, with two symphonies and an unorchestrated cello concerto written. It was during the month starting on 21st April 1887 that Dvorak turned his attention to the arrangement of twelve songs from Cypresses for string quartet, providing a series of attractive miniatures in a highly characteristic idiom. These were only published in 1921. In 1887 he was at the height of his powers. The year before he bad been in England to conduct a performance of his oratorio Saint Ludmila, commissioned by the Leeds Festival, and now he bad completed his Mass in D, a private commission, and the Terzetto, while the Piano Quintet in A major was to follow in the autumn.
The first of the songs arranged for string quartet was the sixth of the song-cycle, Já vim, ze v sladké nadeji (I know that on my love), in D flat major and marked Moderato. This sets the mood for much of what is to follow, with an assured handling of the medium, based on practical experience. The second of the quartet set, the third of the songs, V tak mnohém srdci mrtvo jest (Death reigns) is in F minor, marked Allegro, ma non troppo. It starts with a sense of urgency, over accompanying triplet figuration from the middle strings. At the centre there is momentary relaxation of tension and once again as the same material returns, before the movement comes to an end. V te sladké mo ci ocr tvych (When thy sweet glances), the third quarIet piece and second song, is in G major, marked Andante con moto, and with a tendency towards E minor and to pentatonic melodic contours. It is followed by the Poco adagio E flat major Ó, nasí Iásce nekvete to vytouzené stestí (Never will love lead us), perfectly suited to the new medium. The cello suggests a gentle lilting motion to the arrangement of the twelfth song, Zde hledrm na tvuj drahy list (Here gaze I), an A flat major Andante. Ó, zlatá rüze spanilá (O charming golden rose) is the seventh of the songs. In E major and marked Andante moderato, it is characteristic of the composer in its harmonies and tender in mood. There is no great change of feeling in the seventh of the quartet arrangements, the ninth song, Kol domu se ted' potácím (I wander oft), an E minor Andante con moto, underpinned by the cello initial insistence on tonic and dominant. Here the first violin melody is pointed by the agitated repeated notes of the second violin. The fourteenth song of the original cycle, Zde v lese u potoka (In deepest forest glade), restores the E major key. Marked Lento, it moves forward to more intense drama, in true str