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ClassicsOnline Home » DVORAK, A.: Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Sucharova-Weiser, Vlach Quartet)
Dvořák’s two piano quartets stand beside those of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schumann as important contributions to the chamber music repertoire. Enlivened by Czech inflections, the elegant charm of the First, with its marvellous set of variations and combined scherzo-and-finale last movement, contrasts with the more serious and weighty character of the Second, where an expressive theme for cello in the slow movement and a lyrical scherzo in waltz-time lighten the prevailing mood.
By Stephen Francis Vasta
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Piano Quartet in D major, Op. 23
Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 87
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 former piano pupil, Anna Čermáková, sister of an actress from the theatre and daughter of a Prague goldsmith, 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 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, 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.
Dvořák completed his Piano Trio in B flat major, Op. 21, on 14 May 1875 and eighteen days later, on 10 June, he had completed his Piano Quartet in D major, Op. 23. The latter work was first performed in Prague on 16 December 1880, the year of its publication by Schlesinger in Berlin. The quartet opens with a characteristically Czech melody, started by the cello, continued by the violin and shifting to B major when the piano takes up the theme. The material is developed, leading to the second subject in A major, heard first from the piano. The central development has two false recapitulations, before the final return to the original key, with a varied piano accompaniment to the first subject and an abbreviated transition to the second, heard first from the cello. The second movement, a theme and five variations, entrusts the B minor melody first to the violin. The first variation, Un poco più mosso, fragments the theme and the second, Poco andante, has the viola echoing the opening phrase of the piano. The third variation, Poco più mosso, quasi andantino, gives prominence first to the piano, before the varied theme is taken up by violin and viola, and the fourth, L'istesso tempo, modulates, through the opening piano arpeggiated chords, to E flat major, mingled with the original key of the movement. The final variation, Quasi l'istesso tempo, varies the original duple metre into a time-signature of 6/16, before 2/4 is restored in the coda. The final Allegretto scherzando in 3/8 allows the cello the first theme, accompanied by the piano and then taken up by the violin. The piano leads the way to a quadruple metre Allegro agitato in a movement that combines scherzo and finale.
Eventually in 1889, after the repeated urging of his publisher Simrock, Dvořák was able to offer a new piano quartet. The Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 87, was started on 10 July, to be completed on 12 August. The same year brought the composition of his Symphony in G major, Op. 88. The quartet had its first performance in November 1890 in Prague and was published in the same year. The strings offer a forceful unison opening to the Allegro con fuoco, to which the piano replies. The second subject, in G major, is introduced by the viola. The central development section includes a false recapitulation and the violin offers the second subject in B major, before it appears in true recapitulation in the key of E flat. The first subject is heard again before dramatically mysterious string tremolandi lead to a brief coda. The slow movement is in G flat major and opens with an expressive cello theme. Fierce descending chromatic octaves from the piano lead to a contrasting section in C sharp minor, moving to a more lyrical D flat major, before the return of the main theme. This is again interrupted by a descending chromatic scale, now from the strings, and an F sharp minor section in which rôles of piano and strings are reversed, leading to a transposition of the second subject material into G flat. The E flat major third movement, marked Allegro moderato, grazioso, is a lyrical waltz, with a second theme introducing a quasi-oriental augmented second. The B major trio section is in a characteristic Bohemian rhythm, after which the opening scherzo is repeated. The sonata-form Finale opens in the key of E flat minor, with the major key finally restored in the recapitulation of the second subject.
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