DVORAK: Piano Quintets Opp. 5 and 81
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Antonín Dvor??ák (1841-1904)
Piano Quintet in A major, Op.5 Piano Quintet in A major, Op.81
Antonín Dvo?×ák 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, Dvo?×ák 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 Dvo?×ák 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 Dvo?×ák 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 Brahms, impressed by Dvo?×áks Moravian Duets entered for the award of 1877, 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 Dvo?×áks 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 Dvo?×ák 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, Dvo?×áks 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 Dvo?×áks 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 Dvo?×ák 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.
Dvo?×ák wrote his Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 5, in 1872, and revised it in 1887, before, seemingly, putting it aside to write another quintet in the same key, originally known as Op. 77, but later issued as Op. 81. The earlier quintet was first performed at the Konvikt Hall in Prague on 22nd November 1872. The revised version was shortened by various cuts, including an extensive cut in the first movement, as well as various other adjustments, which in 1887 presumably failed to meet with the composers complete satisfaction. In the first movement the opening piano motif is taken up by the cello and then by the other instruments. A transition leads to the gentler secondary theme and new ideas are drawn from the material in the development. The abridged recapitulation omits the secondary theme. The piano opens the F major Andante sostenuto in a section of the movement that frames a central element of greater tonal and melodic diversity. The last movement, criticized by some, nevertheless has a wealth of invention in the developing musical language that Dvo?×ák was finding for himself. The whole work, however, has inevitably been overshadowed by the later quintet in the same key.
Dvo?×áks Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, was first heard at a concert in Prague on 8th January 1888. The whole work had been written between August and the beginning of October the previous year. The cello is entrusted with the opening theme of the first movement, which is then developed, to be heard in a higher register from the first violin. An exciting transition leads to a secondary theme in C sharp minor, first stated by the viola. The exposition is repeated, before the development, with its hints of melancholy, soon to be dispelled in the approach to the recapitulation. Here the secondary theme, now in F sharp minor, is given first to the cello, to be followed finally by a stormy coda. The second movement is a Dumka, a derivative of the traditional lament, here in a poignant F sharp minor, its melody introduced by the viola. The feeling starts to change with a D major section, although melancholy returns before long. This is followed by the return of the music of the opening section, the cello taking up the melody. A lively dance intervenes, leading to the return of the principal theme and the second slightly faster section, the latter now in F sharp major. A fourth version of the opening melody ends the movement. The A major Scherzo is described as a Furiant, a Bohemian folk-dance. Derived from it is a gentler F major trio section, marked Poco tranquillo. The movement is rounded off by the return of the original dance. The quintet ends with a lively rondo, again with a perfect balance of strings and piano, as throughout the whole work.