Antonfn Dvorak (1841 -1904)
String Quartets V 01. 4
String Quartet No.10 in E flat Major, Op. 51
String Quartet No.14 in A flat major, Op. 105
Antonin Dvorak was born in 1841, the son of a butcher andinnkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy in Bohemia and some fortymiles north of Prague. It was natural that he should follow the example of hisfather and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end he leftschool at the age of eleven. There is no reliable record of his competence inbutchery, but his musical abilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he wassent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice, where he continued an apprenticeshipstarted at home, learning German and improving his know ledge of music,rudimentary skill in which he had already acquired at home and in the villageband and church.
Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a townin northern Bohemia, led to his admission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ School,from which he graduated two years later.
In the years that followed, Dvorak earned his living as aviola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak which was to formthe nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Fouryears later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czechoperas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride hadalready been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvorak resigned from thetheatre orchestra, to devote more time to composition, as his music began todraw some favourable local attention. Two years later he married and early in1874 became organist of the church of St Adalbert. During this period hecontinued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a series ofcompositions that gradually became known to a wider circle.
Further recognition came with the award of a Ministry ofEducation stipendium by a committee in Vienna that included the critic Eduard Hanslickand Brahms for a number of compositions submitted to the committee in 1874. Thefollowing year Dvorak failed to win the award, but was successful in 1876 andagain in 1877. His fourth application brought the personal interest of Hanslickand Brahms and a connection with Simrock, the latter's publisher, who expresseda wish to publish the Moraviiln Duets and commissioned a set of SlavonicDances for piano duet. These compositions won particular popularity. Therewere visits to Germany, as well as to England, where he was always receivedwith greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever at that time have wonin Vienna. The series of compositions that followed secured him an unassailableposition in Czech music and a place of honour in the larger world.
Early in 1891 Dvorak became professor of composition atPrague Conservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited to become directorof the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a venture which, it washoped, would lay the foundations for American national music. The very Bohemianmusical results of Dvorak's time in America are well known. Here he wrote his NinthSymphony, From the New World, its themes influenced, at least, bywhat he had heard of indigenous American Indian and Negro music, his AmericanQuartet and a charming Sonatina for violin and piano. In 1895 he settledat home again, returning to his work at the Prague Conservatory and writing inthe following year a series of symphonic poems and before the end of thecentury two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.
The tenth of Dvorak's fourteen quartets, the Quartet inE flat major, Opus 51, was written in 1879 in response to a request fromJan Becker, leader of the Florentine Quartet, for a work of Czech inspiration.
The work won the approval of Brahms and of Josef Hellmesberger of the HellmesbergerQuartet, who now found occasion to ask again for two of the earlier quartets,as he planned his recital series. The Slavonic Dances had hadconsiderable success, provoking an unfortunate demand from his publisherSimrock for works of a similar kind. The quartet offers a richness of texture,a remarkable sonority, in an idiom that is essentially its own. The firstmovement is in sonata-form, with its traditional three sections of exposition,development and recapitulation. The lilt of the opening cello figure, however,sets an unmistakably Slavonic mood, the music impelled forward by the insistentfolk-dance rhythms that appear, sometimes in accompanying parts. For the secondmovement the title Dumka is used. The word, of Ukrainian origin, impliesa short piece of a melancholy cast, sometimes alternating with a more rapidsection. Its use in European art-music originates with Dvorak himself. Contrastis here provided by a further element that is part of the theme dominant in themovement, now in the shape of a furiant, with its cross-rhythms. Theopening brings a moving melody, accompanied by the plucked notes of the cello,the rhythmic ending of the melodic phrase highly typical of the cadences offolk-music. The slow movement proper is a Romanza in which the samerichness of texture predominates, sonorities which, miraculously, never becomemuddy or turgid. Czech dance-forms return in the Finale, which is basedon the rhythm of the skocna. The cheerful opening melody is contrastedwith a second element of staider mould and the movement includes a fascinatingpolyphonic treatment of the material.
Dvorak's Quartet in A flat major, Opus 105, is thepenultimate in published order, preceded there by the so-called AmericanQuartet and followed by the Quartet in G major, Opus 106. These lasttwo quartets were completed in 1895, after the composer's return from America,and published by Simrock the following year. Opus 105 was, in fact,started in New York and Dvorak resumed work on it with his teaching duties atPrague Conservatory, completing it on 30th December, after finishing Opus106. The first movement, with its slow introduction of almost melancholyintensity, leads to a theme of great charm and further melodic material oftypically Czech rhythmic and melodic character. This, with a hunting-callsecond subject, is worked out contrapuntally to splendid effect, therecapitulation abbreviating much of the first subject on its re-appearance. Theapproach to the conclusion is marked by a reference to the initial Adagio.
The second movement, marked Molto vivace, is in the manner of a Czech furiant,a movement redolent of Bohemia in texture, rhythm and melody, with a triosection that derives its opening figure from part of the opening theme. The slowmovement has one of those extended melodies of which Dvorak was such a master,its subtle harmonies giving it a characteristic flavour of its own. This isfollowed by a Finale that adds to its richness of invention byintroducing an extra second subject, in the key of G flat, a theme that doesnot return when the material is recapitulated. The movement and the quartet asa whole may be heard as an expression of thanksgiving for the composer's returnto his own country.