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ClassicsOnline Home » DVORAK: Theme with Variations, Op. 36 / Waltzes, Op. 54
Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)
Complete Solo Piano Music, Volume 1
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 natural 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 original 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 Komzák, 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.
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
Moravian 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 Jeannette
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’s Piano Music
Dvorák is better known for his orchestral works and his
chamber music than for anything he wrote for the piano, although one of the
Humoresques retains a place in popular repertoire.
The Two Minuets, Op. 28, B. 58, were written in 1876-77,
presumably originally as orchestral pieces, perhaps commissioned by a Prague
organization for a ball. They are graceful Ländler, composed in a chain-like
structure, each consisting of five sections and a coda.
The Dumka, Op. 35, B. 64, appeared together with the Theme
with Variations, Op. 36 and the Piano Concerto, Op. 33, in 1876. It is Dvorák’s
first piece under the title Dumka, to be followed by more famous pieces,
including the so-called ‘Dumky’ Trio, Op. 90, and the Dumka from the String
Quartet in E flat major, Op. 51. It is an elegiac, deeply-felt work, with a
very taut arrangement of voices that at times almost give the impression of a
quartet. It can be understood as an elegiac antithesis to the more cheerful and
The Theme with Variations is among Dvorák’s longest works
for the piano. The theme is laid out generously and lyrically over 45 bars.
Here the composer had much space to experiment, exemplified in the first two variations,
structured in triplets and in demisemiquavers. The third variation is
ballad-like and resembles the Dumka in its mood. The fourth and fifth are
highly demanding variations which require much practice from the pianist. Dvorák
himself suggested that the fifth variation would be better left out because of
its great difficulty. In contrast to this octave variation stands the lovely,
chorale-like sixth variation, one of Dvorák’s musically deepest ideas. After an
exuberant seventh and the loud, vigorous chords of the last variation, the work
closes as it began in a song-like, lyrical atmosphere.
The Three Album Leaves are all short occasional compositions
in highly varying moods. They were written during the years 1880-1888. Otázka
(Question), B. 128a and the Album Leaf in E flat major were written in
guest-books for friends by Dvorák.
Dvorák wrote his Eight Waltzes, Op. 54, B. 101, in 1880.
Unlike the waltzes of Brahms and Chopin, which he did not want to imitate, Dvorák’s
waltzes, originally commissioned for an anniversary ball, impress by their mood
changes from melancholy to extreme joy in proportionally short sequences. These
mood changes create the special magic of the waltzes. Dvorák’s high opinion of
this work can be seen in the fact that he arranged the first and fourth Waltzes
for string quartet after their completion.
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