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ClassicsOnline Home » DVORAK, A.: String Quartets, Vol. 8 (Vlach Quartet) - No. 3
This volume from the Vlach Quartet Prague’s acclaimed Dvořák String Quartet series presents the symphonically-conceived Third String Quartet of 1869/70, a richly rewarding work. Despite the lingering influence of Liszt and Wagner, the inclusion of a topical Czech patriotic song in the quartet’s third movement suggests the strengthening of Dvořák nationalist consciousness and the emergence of his own distinctive voice as a Czech composer. Volumes 1–7 are also available. “Vlach magic…this must be among the world’s finest quartets” (Gramophone).
By Stephen Francis Vasta
By Colin Clarke
By Patricia Kelly
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904): String Quartets Vol. 8
Quartet No. 3 in D major, B. 18
Antonín Dvořák 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, Dvořák 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 Dvořák 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 Dvořák 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 Dvořák’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 Dvořák’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 Dvořák 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, Dvořák’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 Dvořák’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 Dvořák 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.
The third of Dvořák’s string quartets, the Quartet in D major, was written in 1869 or 1870. The second date is provided by the primary source, the parts of the quartet preserved in the collection of the Czech violinist Antonín Bennewitz. These suggest hurried copying, in part by the composer, and carry both a date and the number II, the latter placing it before the following Quartet in E minor, as the editor of the complete Prague edition points out. If the quartet was written by 1870, the use in the third movement of a patriotic song, Hej, Slované, suggests 1869 or thereabouts, since the song had become current in Bohemia with the development of the Czech national movement of 1868 and 1869.
The Quartet in D major, at one time given the numbering Opus 9, was never published and perhaps never played in the composer’s lifetime. It has a disadvantage in its length, leading the editor of the complete edition to suggest a number of cuts to reduce playing time by nearly a half. There is no doubt that, apart from practical considerations of concert performance, the work is hardly concise, a possible reason for Dvořák’s decision to reject it. The first movement is in the expected tripartite form. The first subject is heard at once, stated by the first violin, and this material is further extended and developed, leading, after over 150 bars, to a more delicate secondary theme. There is the expected central development and an extended recapitulation, capped by a final coda. The slow movement, marked Andantino, is in B minor, and returns, with complementary following material, before the movement comes to an end. The cheerful Czech song is heard at once in the Scherzo, in an energetic G major, with a contrast of key and initial mood in the B flat Trio. Dvořák provides a rondo for the last movement, its principal theme curiously chromatic, a hint, at least, of the current influence on him of Wagner, whose harmonic practices are reflected elsewhere in the quartet, as they are in the opera Alfred, on which he was working in 1870.
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