Classical Music | Music for Quartet

Antonin Dvořák

String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97  Play

Pacifica Quartet Quartet
Michael Tree Viola

Recorded on 04/01/2001, uploaded on 03/31/2009

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Dvořák Quartet in G major, Op. 106 and Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97

notes by Wayne Booth and Yonatan Malin

 Antonín Dvořák's life (1841-1904) was in many ways strikingly different from those of the contempo­raneous composers who influenced him, such as Wagner, Smetana, and especially Brahms. (Earlier influences included, as one would expect, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt.) None of these Dvořák contemporaries came from "peasant" families. Antonín's father was a butcher who tried hard to pass the business on to his son, even while ensuring his training as a "fiddler" and singer. Most of his composing peers received a far more intensive childhood musical and cultural education - and they usually attained favorable responses to their early compositions.

Dvořák's earliest efforts were rejected by almost everyone; he made his living early on as a violist, organ­ist, and music teacher. Lacking external confirmation of his own abilities, Dvořák nonetheless composed morn­ing, noon, and night. He was always extremely critical of his work and, like Brahms - who later became not only a mentor but also a close friend - Dvořák deliberately tore up many of his earliest "completed" works. Those he preserved were all intensely revised as he matured.

Only in his early thirties did signs of success begin to emerge. In his forties he experienced an astonishing rise to international acclaim. At the age of fifty, in 1891, his European fame led to an invitation from the National Conservatory of Music in New York City to become its Director and conduct six concerts of his work, while also teaching composition. Though reluctant to leave his beloved homeland, he came for two visits, first from September 1892 to March 1894 and then, even more reluctantly, October 1894 to April 1895.

To his surprise, he fell in love with much of American popular music. Everyone agrees that his encounter with American culture was immensely influential on his later work. That influence is most evident in his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, "From the New World," and the "American" Quartet in F major, Op. 96. It is also noticeable in the two works recorded here - especially in the opus 97 Quintet. Dvořákdid not compose the opus 106 Quartet until he returned home, but he conceived some of its substance while still in America.

Critics generally agree that these two compositions are among his finest. They both embody his intense, lifetime love of chamber music, his mature mastery of classical form intricacies, and his revolutionary commitment to folk melody, achieving passionate emotional tensions. They celebrate the joy of life while also exhibiting the profound grief that the loss of his children and many of his friends had produced.

Along with his assigned concert and teaching duties in New York City, Dvořák managed to compose several works including the "New World" Symphony, the "American" Quartet, and the somewhat routine commemorative work, The American Flag, written for the 1892 Columbus Centennial.

From the beginning, he experienced an increasing love for American folk music, especially African American and Native American. Yet he also longed for Czech culture. Unable to get home, he managed to arrange a "vacation" with his family in a tiny Midwestern village of Czech settlers: Spillville, Iowa. Dvořák found it a curious place:

It is very strange here. Few people and a great deal of empty space. A farmer's nearest neighbor is often 4 miles off, especially in the prairies (I call them the Sahara) [where] there are only endless acres of field and meadow and that is all you see. You don't meet a soul (here they only ride on horseback) and you are glad to see in the woods and meadows the huge herds of cattle which, summer and winter, are out at pasture in the broad fields. Men go to the woods and meadows where the cows graze to milk them. And so it is very "wild" here and sometimes very sad - sad to despair. ("Antonín Dvořák: Letters and Reminiscences," edited by Otakar Sourek, p. 166)

Surrounded in Spillville both by friends of Czech ori­gin and by African-Americans and Native Americans playing and singing music, Dvořák quickly began com­positions influenced by that music. First came the famous "American" Quartet, beautifully loaded with the pentatonic scales that infused so much of the music he was hearing. Then, after listening to more music performed by visitors to the town said to be of the Kickapoo tribe, he composed the opus 97 Quintet. Written in five weeks in 1893, this marvelous work had immediate success and increased speculation about Dvořák's American influences.

The key melodies, such as those central in movements one and three, have invited critics to debate whether Dvořák got them from American or Slovak folk music. How can one decide, since pentatonics are fundamen­tal to both musical cultures? Are critics right to say that he got the bouncing rhythm of the second move­ment scherzo from Native American drum rhythms?

The Quintet opens with a pentatonic melody for solo viola (Dvořák's own instrument). This melody returns first in the minor mode, then in the major, with faster rhythms as the movement gets under way in earnest, building to its first climax. For the second theme of the first movement Dvořák adapted a Native American melody that he heard in Spillville. Its light, dotted rhythms, echoing Algonquin drumming patterns, return throughout this movement as well as in the Finale. The two violas trade a melancholy theme in the develop­ment, and Dvořák weaves a recollection of the viola's opening melody into the movement's peaceful ending.

The second movement, a scherzo and trio, begins, like the first, with a viola solo; but here it is a tricky rhythm played on a single note, an ostinato that continues to sound as melodic layers are added. A long arching melody with unexpected harmonic turns passes from viola to violin in the trio section. Many consider the slow third movement the emotional heart of the Quintet; it is a set of variations on two themes, the first minor and the second major. Dvořák originally wrote the second theme as a prospective American anthem: a musical setting for "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

The Finale is a surprisingly light-hearted rondo with contrasting episodes and a dervish-like finish. Some critics have declared it a disappointingly frivolous anti-climax to one of Dvorˇák's (otherwise) greatest achievements. Less erudite listeners, however, will find themselves too busy singing its catchy melodies (which half-reflect the earlier movements) to take any charges of banality seriously.

Wayne Booth is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Chicago. Yonatan Malin is a graduate student in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago.

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