DVORAK: String Quintets Opp. 1 and 97 (Ladislav Kyselak/ Václav Zamazal/ Vlach Quartet Prague) (Naxos: 8.553376)
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Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)
String Quintets Op.1 and Op.97
Antonín Dvorák 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 natura1 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 origina1 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, Dvorák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak, 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 Dvorák 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 Dvorák 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, impressed by Dvorák's Morovion Duets entered for the award of 1877, Brahms 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 Dvorák's 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 Dvorák 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 Jeanette 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, Dvorák's 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 Dvorák'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 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 Dvorák 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.
Dvorák wrote his first surviving piece of chamber music, the String Quintet in A minor, Opus 1, in the summer of 1861. There is more of Schubert than of Bohemia about a work that, nevertheless, is a sure sign of future mastery and a significant achievement in itself. The quintet, scored like Mozart's with two violas, was given its first public performance seventeen years after the composer's death and was first published in 1943. The first movement starts with a slow introduction that has an element of lilting melancholy about it. The first violin announces the first subject of the Allegro and there is an inventive transition to the C major second subject, with its smooth opening phrase answered staccato. Other elements appear before the end of the exposition, which is not repeated. The development leads naturally to a varied recapitulation, with the transition between first and second subject now elaborated, and the principal theme is echoed in the coda. The slow movement allows the first viola to present the F major principal theme, accompanied by the dotted rhythms of the second viola and cello, which take an even more Schubertian character when the violins take up the melody. The central section of the movement introduces new material and develops the main theme, before it returns in its original key, played by the two violins. The final Allegro con brio starts with a call to attention in its strong opening motif. gently answered before question and answer are repeated and dialogue continues. This melts imperceptibly into a happier C major and then a rhythm of greater urgency. The development of the material leads to the return of the main theme, the opening motif of which has proved of continuing importance, and a final recapitulation.
The String Quintet in E flat major, Opus 97, is a very different work. During his time in America Dvorák had been able to spend summer holidays away from New York, staying with members of the Czech community at Spillville, in Iowa. The summer of 1893 brought the composition of the so-called American Quartet, written at Spillville in the space of fifteen days and completed on 23rd June. Three days later he started the American Quintet, completing it on 1st August. It had its first public performance in New York the following January.
Whatever influences Dvorák may have drawn from America, as a composer he remained thoroughly Bohemian. The quintet, scored like the earlier work with two violas, at first allows the second viola an augmented version of what is to be the principal theme, entrusted subsequently to the first violin. This pentatonic material is developed, set against dotted rhythm accompanying figuration, which provides a forward impetus. The secondary theme is also pentatonic in contour and this exposition is repeated, before the central development and the return of the thematic material, now modified. Whether suggested by the rhythmic drum beat of Iroquois Indians, as some have suggested, or not, the second viola opens the B major Scherzo with a repeated rhythmic formula, over which the first violin proposes a lively dance theme. To this the centra1 B minor trio section offers a contrast, with its melody for the first viola. If contemporary critics in New York sensed America in the first two movements of the quintet and the last one, no such claim could be made for the Larghetto, a theme and five variations. T