Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)
String Quartets Vol. 6
String Quartet No. 5 in F minor, Op. 9
String Quartet No. 7 in A minor, Op. 16
Antonin Dvorak was born in 1841, the son of a butcher andinnkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy in Bohemia, and someforty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should at first have been expectedto 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 abandonedhis original trade, to earn something of a living as a zither player. Afterprimary schooling he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice and was there ableto acquire the necessary knowledge of German and improve his abilities as amusician, hitherto acquired at home, in the village band and at church. Furtherstudy of German and of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led tohis admission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ School, where he studied for the followingtwo years.
On leaving the Organ School, Dvorak earned his living asa viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak, an ensemble thatwas to form the nucleus of the Czech Provisional Theatre Orchestra, establishedin 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor at the theatre, wherehis operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride hadalready been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvorak resigned from theorchestra, devoting himself more fully to composition, as his music began toattract favourable local attention. In 1873 he married a singer from the chorusof the theatre and in 1874 became organist of the church of St Adalbert. Duringthis period he continued to support himself by private teaching, while busy ona series of compositions that gradually became known to a wider circle.
Further recognition came to Dvorak in 1874, when hisapplication for an Austrian government award brought his music to the attentionof Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick in Vienna. The granting of this award forfive consecutive years was of material assistance. It was through this contactthat Brahms, impressed by Dvorak's Moravian Duets entered for the awardof 1877, was able to arrange for their publication by Simrock, who commissioneda further work, Slavonic Dances, for piano duet. The success of these publicationsintroduced Dvorak's music to a much wider public, for which it held some exoticappeal. As his reputation grew, there were visits to Germany and to England,where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than might initially havebeen accorded a Czech composer in Vienna.
In 1883 Dvorak had rejected a tempting proposal that heshould write a German opera for Vienna. At home he continued to contribute toCzech operatic repertoire, an important element in re-establishing nationalidentity. 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 thesummer of the same year he was invited to become director of the NationalConservatory of Music in New York. With the backing of Jeanette Thurber and herhusband, this institution was intended to foster American music, hithertodominated by musicians from Europe or largely trained there. Whatever theultimate success or failure of the venture, Dvorak's contribution was seen asthat of providing a blue-print for American national music, following theexample of Czech national music, which owed so much to him. The musical resultsof 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 Europeantradition that he had inherited, while making use of melodies and rhythms thatmight be associated in one way or another with America. By 1895 Dvorak was homefor good, resuming work at the Prague Conservatory, of which he became directorin 1901. His final works included a series of symphonic poems and two moreoperas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.
It was in 1873, the year of his marriage, that Dvorakwrote his String Quartet in F minor, Opus 9. The year had broughtmixed success. His patriotic Hymnus, The Heirs of the White Mountain,had been favourably received and a revised version of his opera The King andthe Charcoal-Burner had been accepted by Smetana for performance at the CzechProvisional Theatre. The opera, however, was dropped after a first rehearsal,to be revised in a less Wagnerian style for performance in the followingseason. He started the quartet in September and had completed the work by earlyOctober, a month before his wedding. While the four earlier quartets had had nopublic performance, the new work was initially accepted by the quartet led byAntonin Bennewitz, with Deutsch, Hfunaly and Hegenbarth, who then found faultwith the style of the work, as they did with Smetana's autobiographicalquartet, with which it has something in common. It is thought that the first performanceeventually took place only in 1930, when the score became available. Dvorak,however, drew on the slow movement for his Romance for solo violinand orchestra, completed by 1877 and published two years later.
The extent to which the Quartet in F minor may beautobiographical is arguable. It has been suggested that the work suggestsdoubts and their resolution, in its progress. The first movement, in its slowerintroduction, offers the substance of the first subject and the rhythmicfigure, with its answer, on which much that follows will depend. This is sooninterrupted by a series of passionate arpeggios, another recurrentelement. The material is duly elaborated, with a second subject of greater serenity,a central development and varied recapitulation. The plucked notes of the celloaccompany the gentle first violin melody of the slow movement. There iscontrast in a central section, before the return of the main theme and its finaltransformation into A flat minor, then A flat major. There is a syncopatedaccompaniment to the Tempo di valse, with its F major trio section.
The last movement opens dramatically, before the principal melody is heard fromthe viola. Further melodic material appears, with a distinctly Slavonic flavourto it, as the movement unwinds.
The String Qual1et No.7 in A minor, Opus 16, was writtenin the space of ten days and completed on 24th September 1874. It was publishedthe following year and heard in 1878 in a public performance by the BennewitzQuartet. Classical in its structure, the first movement opens with the principaltheme, to which the second offers a contrast, The central development leads toa varied recapitulation, with the secondary theme in A major, before the Aminor conclusion. The F major slow movement has a secondary theme that providesvariety in key and rhythm, before the return of the main theme. A minor returnswith the capricious scherzo and its C major trio, the latter moretypical of the composer. Fierce dynamic changes mark the last movement, withits repeated rhythmic triplet figure, to which there is suaver melodiccontrast. It i