Antonin Dvořak (1841 - 1904)
Quartet No. 11 in C major, Op. 61
Quartet No. 8 in E major, Op. 80
Antonin Dvořakwas born in 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, nearKralupy in Bohemia and someforty miles north of Prague. It was natural that heshould follow the example of his father and grandfather by learning the familytrade, and to this end he left school at the age of eleven. There is noreliable record of his competence in butchery, but his musical abilities wereearly apparent, and in 1853 he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice,where he continued an apprenticeship started at home, learning German andimproving his knowledge of music, rudimentary skill in which he had a1readyacquired at home and in the village band and church. Further study of Germanand of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to hisadmission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ School, from whichhe graduated two years later.
In the yearsthat followed, Dvořak earned his living as a viola-player in a band underthe direction of Karel Komzak which was to form the nucleus of the ProvisionalTheatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointedconductor of the opera-house, where his Czech operas The Brandenburgers inBohemia and The Bartered Bride had a1ready been performed. It wasnot until 1871 that Dvořak resigned from the theatre orchestra, to devotemore time to composition, as his music began to draw some favourable localattention. Two years later he married and early in 1874 became organist of the church of St Adalbert. During thisperiod he continued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a seriesof compositions that gradually became known to a wider circle.
Furtherrecognition came with the award of a Ministry of Education stipendium by acommittee in Vienna that included the critic Eduard Hanslick and Brahms for a numberof compositions submitted to the committee in 1874. The following year Dvorakfailed to win the award, but was successful in 1876 and again in 1877. Hisfourth application brought the personal interest of Hanslick and Brahms and aconnection with Simrock, the latter's publisher, who expressed a wish topublish the Moravian Duets and commissioned a set of Slavonic Dances forpiano duet. These compositions won particular popularity. There were visits to Germany, as weil asto England, where hewas always received with greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever atthat time have won in Vienna. The series ofcompositions that fo11owed secured him an unassailable position in Czech musicand a place of honour in the larger world.
Early in 1891Dvorak became professor of composition at Prague Conservatory .In the summer ofthe same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory ofMusic in New York,a venture which, it was hoped, would lay the foundations for American nationalmusic. The very Bohemian musical results of Dvorak's time in America are we11known. Here he wrote his Ninth Symphony, From the New World, its themesinf1uenced, at least, by what he had heard of indigenous American Indian andNegro music, his American Quartet and a charming Sonatina forviolin and piano. In 1895 he returned home to his work at the PragueConservatory, writing in the fo11owing year a series of symphonic poems andbefore the end of the century two more operas, to add to the nine he hadalready composed. He died in Prague in 1904.
Dvořak'sQuartet in C major, Opus 61, was completed on 10thNovember 1881, in response to a commission from the Hellmesberger Quartet,presumably through the agency of Brahms, and was first performed a year laterin Berlin in November 1882 by the Joachim Quartet, after the disruption of theVienna concert schedule of the Hellmesberger Quartet by a fire at theRingtheater. Something of the composer's reputation may be gauged from the factthat the work was performed twelve days later in Cologne by theHeckmann Quartet. Since the quartet was intended for Vienna, where theHellmesberger Quartet held a leading position, the Czech element in the writingis relatively restrained, in view of current prejudices against provincialBohemian culture and, indeed, of much outside the now established conventionsof the imperial capital. There is harmonic experiment in the first movement,particularly in the recapitulation of the material, where the original keywould have been expected to dominate. There is strong feeling in the movingslow movement, intended at one time as part of the Violin Sonata in Fmajor. This is followed by a lively Scherzo, thematically related tothe first movement, and a Trio that is more overtly Bohemian, as is theenergetic rondo that provides the Finale.
The eighth ofDvořak's fourteen string quartets, the Quartet in E major, Opus 80,once listed as Opus 27, was completed on 4th February 1876 andrevised in 1888, before its first public performance in Boston on 27thFebruary 1889 by the Kneisel Quartet. A few weeks later there were performancesin England, in Manchester and in London. The musicis to some extent influenced by the death of his second child, the first of hisdaughters, who died in September 1875, soon after her birth. The firstmovement, in spite of its key, has a certain gentle melancholy about it. TheCzech slow movement has something of the dumka in it, a form derivedfrom Ukrainian ballads of lament for which Dvořak found considerable use.
The scherzo, with its alternation of triple and duple time, is relativelyrestrained, to be followed by a final movement that again has moments ofreflective lyricism.