Antonin Dvofak (1841 -1904)
Quartet No.12, in F major, Op. 96, \American"
Quartet No.13 in G major, Op. 106
Antonin Dvorak was born in 1841, the sonof a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupyin 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 ski1l in which he had a1ready acquiredat home and in the village band and church. Further study of German and ofmusic at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission,in 1857, to the Prague Organ School, from whichhe graduated two years later.
In the years that followed, Dvorak earnedhis living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzakwhich was to form the nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, establishedin 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house,where his Czech operas and The Bartered Bride had a1ready been performed.
It was not until1871 that Dvorak 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 gradua11y became known to a wider circle.
Further recognition came in 1875 with theaward of a Ministry of Education stipendium by a committee in Vienna thatincluded the critic Eduard Hanslick and Brahms. The following year Dvorakfailed to win the award, but was successful in 1877.
His fourth app1ication brought the personalinterest of Hanslick and Brahms and a connection with Simrock, the latter'spublisher, who expressed a wish to publish the Moravian Duets andcommissioned a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. These compositionswon particular popularity .There were visits to Germany and to England, where hewas always received with greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever atthat time have won in Vienna. The series ofcompositions that followed secured him an unassailable position in Czech musicand a place of honour in the larger world.
Early in 1891 Dvorak became professor ofcomposition at Prague Conservatory. In the summer of the same year he wasinvited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a venturewhich, it was hoped, would lay the foundations for American national music. Thevery Bohemian musical results of Dvorak's time in America are wellknown. 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 hone to his work at the PragueConservatory, writing in the following year a series of symphonic poems andbefore the end of the century two more operas, to add to the nine he hada1ready composed. He died in Prague in 1904.
Dvorak arrived in New York in September1892, bringing with hirn as his secretary the young Josef Jan Kovarik, a violinstudent at Prague Conservatory whose home was at Spillville, Iowa. New York had someattractions for him. Although he was unable to pursue his hobbies as a , ,train-spotter and pigeon-fancier, he was able to inspect freely the many shipsthat docked in the harbour and to pay regular visits to the pigeon- house inCentral Park zoo. He was able, further, to experiment with the American whiskycocktail, nineteen of which in succession left him ready for a good Bohemianslivovitz. His duties at the Conservatory involved the teaching of compositionand the direction of rehearsals of the Conservatory Orchestra, but the socialobligations of his position he found irksome.
In June 1893 Kovarfk was able to persuadeDvorak to spend a holiday with his father, schoolmaster in the Bohemiansettlement at Spillville. Here the composer felt completely at home, among hisown countrymen, and it was at Spillville that he w rote, in a remarkably shorttime, his F major Quartet, Opus 96, a work he was able to play throughwith the Kovariks. The first movement opens with a theme as typically Bohemianas American, played first by the viola and the A major closing theme of theexposition, marked ppp, is introduced by the first violin. The violaleads into the central development and into the following recapitulation. Themore melancholy D minor second movement has an expressive first violin melody,echoed by the cello. The Scherzo makes use of the insistent song of anintrusive Spillville bird, first heard by the composer during an early morningwalk. There are two contrasting F minor trio sections, framed by the scherzo.
The quartet ends with a rondo that includes an episode recalling the churchmusic of Bohernian Spillville in which the composer and his wife had beenactive and regular participants.
Dvorak returned home for good in 1895 andthe following year published the last two of his fourteen string quartets. Hehad started the A flat Quartet, Opus 105, in New York and resumedwork on it after resuming his duties at the Prague Conservatory. He completedit on 30th December 1895,three weeks after he had completed the Quartet in G major, Opus 106.
The latter opens with a characteristic rhythmic figure from the violins,followed by a descending arpeggio from the first violin, a process repeated inE minor and with further modulations. There is another theme in the tonic keyand a third triplet theme in the key of B flat with accompanying cross-rhythmsthat are skilfully concealed in performance. The E flat slow movement openswith a suggestion of sadness in a theme that touches on the minor and is thenfreely varied, shifting in key to reach a bold C major, before peace isrestored. The B minor Scherzo again introduces a characteristic shift ofkey down a minor third, before the principal theme proper is introduced by thefirst violin. There is an A flat major trio section, a return of the scherzotheme, now in G sharp minor, and a D major second trio section with greatsubt1eties of rhythm, followed by the return of the opening section. The lastmovement, a rondo, suggests the main theme in a short slow introduction. This Andantesostenuto reappears in the course of the movement, followed by elements fromthe first movement. It is the principal theme that brings the movement to anend with some panache.