Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

 

[Bullet6] String Quartet No. 10 in E Flat Major Op. 51 (1879)

[Bullet6] Slavonic Dances for Piano Four Hands, Op. 46 (1878). Op. 72 (1886)

[Bullet6] Terzetto in C Major Op. 74 for Two Violins and Viola (1887)

[Bullet6] Serenade in D minor, Op. 44 for Winds, Cello and Double Bass (1878)

[Bullet6] Piano Trio in E Minor, Op 90 "Dumky" (1891)

[Bullet6] Piano Quintet in A Major, Op.81 (1887)


Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

Serenade in D minor, Op. 44 for Winds, Cello and Double Bass (1878)

 

dvorakIn May 1879, Johannes Brahms wrote to his friend, the reknowned violinist Joseph Joachim: "Take a look at Dvorak’s Serenade for Wind Instruments; I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do...It would be difficult to discover a finer, more refreshing impression of really abundant and charming creative talent. Have it played to you; I feel sure the players will enjoy doing it!"

Only one year earlier, Brahms had recommended the music of Dvorak to his publisher in Berlin, Simrock, who accepted Dvorak for publication and suggested that he compose a set of Slavonic Dances as Brahms had composed Hungarian Dances. Dvorak obliged, and the result, the Slavonic Dances Op. 46 brought the hitherto unknown composer immediate international success.

It was in 1878 that Dvorak first incorporated the rhythms of Czech folk dances into his music. Along with the Slavonic Dances, he composed the Slavonic Rhapsodies, Bagatelles, Furianty for Piano, the String Sextet (performed by the SCS in its 1991-92 Season) which received its premiere performance by Joseph Joachim and friends in Berlin - the first of Dvorak’s works to receive its premiere outside his native land, and the Serenade Op. 44. All of these works are amply endowed with the spirit of Czech folk music.

The opening march pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the serenades of Mozart and central European wind-band music, "Harmoniemusik." The second movement is actually comprised of two Czech folk dances, the sousedska (neighbor’s dance) and a furiant as the "Trio" section. In the third movement, Dvorak unfolds a typically lovely melody while the finale rolls along with high-spirited folk dances and a reminiscence of the opening march theme to end the work jubilantly in the key of D major.

1992-93 Season,Program V, Saturday April 24, 1993

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Antonin Dvorak (184l-1904)

Piano Trio in E Minor, Op 90 "Dumky" (1891)

 

dvorak intenseThe Dumky Trio is the last and best known of Dvorak’s piano trios. "Dumky" is the plural of "Dumka" which can be translated as "a fleeting thought". The Trio is made up of six movements, each a "dumka". Dumky, therefore refers to the work as a whole. Dvorak translated the idea of fleeting thoughts into music by contrasting slow elegiac sections with fast impassioned ones. This Trio departs from the typical form of piano trios in that it does not contain a movement in sonata form or one consisting of variations. Rather, it is a work suffused with the simple beauty and colorful quality of folk song and dance, yet the melodies are Dvorak’s own. The Trio was composed toward the end of the composer’s nationalistic period. The work was premiered in Prague on April 11, 1891 (with Dvorak as pianist) at a concert at which the composer received an honorary doctorate from Prague’s Charles University. The work was so well received that it was presented on a forty concert tour, just before Dvorak left for the United States to head the National Conservatory of Music in New York City where he would encourage American composers to explore their own folk music as a source for inspiration. The Trio was published while Dvorak was in America and was proofread by none other than his friend, Johannes Brahms.

1992-93 Season, Program IV, Sunday February 28, 1993

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Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904)

Slavonic Dances for Piano Four Hands, Op. 46 (1878). Op. 72 (1886)

Vienna, 12 Dec. 1877

"In connection with the State Scholarships, I have been receiving a lot of pleasure for several years past from the work of Anton Dvorák of Prague. This year he has sent in, among other things, some "Duets for 2 Sopranos with Pianoforte" (the Moravian Duets Op.32), which seem to me to be quite charming, and practical for publication...Dvorák has written all kinds of things, operas (Czech), symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. He is certainly a very talented fellow. And incidentally, poor! I beg you to consider that! The duets will show you what I mean and might "sell well"...

Vienna, 5 April 1878

"I am leaving for Italy in a day or two with Billroth and Goldmark...I would not have even written to say so, except that I am thinking about Dvorák.

I don’t know how much further you are prepared to venture with his work. And I know nothing about business, or how much real interest is taken in larger works. Nor am I fond of making recommendations, for after all I have only my own eyes and ears to go by. If you are thinking of anything at all, you might perhaps ask him to send you two string quartets in Major and Minor and get them played to you. Dvorák has what is most essential for a musician, and it is to be found in these pieces. I myself am a hopeless Philistine, I would even publish my own things for pleasure’s sake.

In short, I don’t like to do more than recommend Dvorák in a general way. Besides you have your own ears and your business experience, and that must have its say too..."

Above are excerpts of two letters written by none other than Johannes Brahms to his publisher Fritz Simrock of Berlin. Concerning Dvorák, Simrock’s business sense was as acute as was Brahms’ eyes and ears. He commissioned the first series of Slavonic Dances for Piano Four Hands (four hand piano music being a popular medium for amateur music-making in the home; "Haus -Musik") with the hope that they would be as successful and lucrative as had been Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, the first volume which Simrock published in 1860. Indeed they were!

Through their publication, Dvorák, then principal violist in Prague’s Provincial Theater Orchestra, and poor, as Brahms reminded Simrock, gained international fame and fortune. The Slavonic Dances sold so well, that Simrock asked Dvorák to orchestrate them. It is in the orchestral version that the works are most well known and often performed. (Incidentally, Dvorák also orchestrated some of the Brahms Hungarian Dances.) Some eight years later, Dvorák composed the second series; again in versions for piano four hands and orchestra. They proved to be as popular as the first set.

Beyond fulfilling a commission, Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances were, for him, a political statement; an opportunity to celebrate in music the Slavic cultures of Central Europe, then under the repressive control of the Austrian Empire. It took years for Dvorák to get his publisher to print his name as "Antonin" rather than the German form "Anton", and even longer for the titles of his pieces to be printed in Czech as well as German in the scores.

In these pieces, Dvorák captured the spirit of the folk dances of his native Bohemia, as well as those of Slovakia, Moravia, Silesia, Serbia, Poland, and Ukraine. Of the selections on today’s program, No.1 of Op. 46 is a Furiant, No.3 is a Polka, No.6 a Sousedska, a minuet-like dance; while No.8 is another Bohemian Furiant. No.2 of Op. 72 is a Bohemian Dumka. No. 4 is another Sousedska, while No.7 is a Kolo, a round dance from Serbia.

Performance of this music requires 4 hands; preferably two right and two left. The four required hands can be employed on either one piano, or two. If, by chance, the opportunity ever arose of playing with either one of the Lebeque Sisters, personally, I’d opt for one piano. However, the use of two piano does insure that the pianistes do not come to blows, during performance, over just who gets to operate the pedals. Two pianos also require two copies of the music; thanks to modern technology, easily obtained, by illegally xeroxing the pages of the score. This, in spite of those menacing notes inserted by the publisher (like the skull and crossbones on the label of iodine bottles) threatening criminal prosecution; meant to frighten faint-hearted and or overly moral musicians (the latter slightly less plentiful than sabre-toothed cats). Alas, two scores, for two pianists, necessitate a doubling of that Necessary Evil, the Page Turner. Life is indeed full of compromises.

1996-97 Season, Program V, Sunday June 1, 1997

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Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

Terzetto in C Major Op. 74 for Two Violins and Viola (1887)

Dvorak must be placed among the most richly gifted and versatile composers of the 19th Century. Truly, like Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert, he was of the race of those divinely blest and naively inspired leaders whose thoughts and emotions manifest themselves spontaneously in musical forms, and whose musical imagination gives itself out in an inexhaustible wealth of pure, fresh and fascinating ideas, in melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Otakar Sourek

Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Imagine this. You are now an up-and-coming composer. One of the greatest living composers has taken an interest in your work, and has recommended you highly to his publisher. It looks as if your days of poverty, teaching, playing viola in theater orchestras and enduring those tedious viola jokes, are to become just a memory. You have a very important concert coming up in just over a week, in which you will premiere a new string quartet composed for this occasion. Rehearsals have been going quite well. This promises to be a major musical event! And then; the cellist, a fine enough player, but with enough bad habits for the entire quartet, goes on a serious bender and is found, by the local constabulary, face down on his cello. The instrument, unable to bear his considerable bulk, is now kindling. Upon being roused, the besotted cellist lets fly with a litany of scurrilous and scatological epithets aimed at the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. How long he will remain shackled in prison is anyone’s guess. Your string quartet is now reduced to two peeved violinists and you: a despondant bratsche kratscher (another viola joke!).

The genesis of Dvorak’s Terzetto?

No.

The true story is as follows, and my source is impeccable, CD liner notes. Dvorak composed the Terzetto (which, by the way, means a piece written for three voices) not for the concert hall, but for one Josef Kruis, an amateur violinist and chemistry student, who happened to live in the same rooming house in Prague, and his teacher, violinist Jan Pelikan. We might assume that Dvorak himself was to take the viola part. As it turned out, the violin part for Kruis was beyond his technical ability, so Dvorak then obligingly composed the less demanding Bagatelles Op.75a for two violins and viola. He later rescored these works for violin and piano and re-titled them Four Romantic Pieces Op.75.

The Terzetto abounds in gentle lyricism, rather than heroics, with the first movement flowing almost imperceptibly into the second movement Larghetto. A Furiant, a lively Bohemian dance in 3/4 time serves as a third movement scherzo; the robust dance surrounds a slow, lyrical episode. The fourth movement is, as the title would suggest, a theme with variations. The theme itself sounds like a cadence or a bit of recitative to a never to be heard aria. And what follows are a series of nine variations in a variety of moods and textures, then a restatement of the theme followed by three rapid variations that serve as a coda. An impressive piece of Hausmusik to be sure!

1997-98 Season, Program V, Sunday June 7, 1998

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The following is from Steeplejack by the prominent N.Y. music critic James Huneker (1860 – 1921)

"Old Borax, as Dvorák was affectionately called, was handed over to me by Madame Thurber when he arrived [in New York]. He was a fervent Roman Catholic, and I hunted a Bohemian church for him as he began his day with an early Mass. Rather too jauntily I invited him to taste the American drink called a whiskey cocktail. He nodded his head, that of an angry-looking bulldog with a beard. He scared one at first with his fierce Slavonic eyes, but was as mild a mannered man as ever scuttled a pupil’s counterpoint. I always spoke of him as a boned pirate. But I made a mistake in believing that American strong waters would upset his Czech nerves. We began at Goerwitz, then described a huge circle, through the great thirst belt of central New York. At each place Doc Borax took a cocktail. Now, alcohol I abhor, so I stuck to my guns, the usual three-voiced invention, hops, malt, and spring water. We spoke German, and I was happy to meet a man whose accent and grammar were worse than my own. Yet we got along swimmingly – an appropriate enough image, for the weather was wet, though not squally….

 

I left him swallowing his nineteenth cocktail. ‘Master,’ I said, ratherly thickly, ‘don’t you think it’s time we ate something?’ He gazed at me through those awful whiskers which met his tumbled hair half-way, ‘Eat. No. I no eat. We go to a Houston Street restaurant. You go, hein? We drink the Slivovitch. It warms you after so much beer.’ I didn’t go that evening to the East Houston Street Bohemian café with Dr. Antonin Dvorák. I never went with him. Such a man is as dangerous to a moderate drinker as a false beacon is to a shipwrecked sailor. And he could drink as much spirits as I could the amber brew. No, I assured Mrs.Thurber that I as through with piloting him. When I met Old Borax again at Sokel Hall, the Bohemian Resort on the East Side, I deliberately dodged him."

The Book of Musical Anecdotes, Norman Liebrecht, The Free Press, N.Y., 1985

 

Antonin Dvorák (1841 – 1904)

String Quartet No. 10 in E Flat Major Op. 51 (1879)

As the saying goes, "nothing succeeds like success". The three Slavonic Rhapsodies and the first set of Slavonic Dances for two Pianos were all resounding accomplishments. Brahms had gotten Dvorák hooked up with his publisher Simrock. He had successful tours of Germany and England. In short, Dvorák was hot. Jean Becker of the famed Florentine Quartet asked for a work for the quartet in the Slavic style. There you have the genesis of the E Flat Quartet, a work filled with the spirit of Czech folk dance. This work too scored a big hit with Brahms and Josef Hellmesberger of the Hellmesberger Quartet, who then also became performers of Dvorák’s quartets. And while the work was dedicated to Jean Becker, the premiere was actually given by the Joachim Quartet (the quartet of same Brahms crony, Joseph Joachim, who got Dohnányi the post at the Berlin Hochschule) in Berlin on the 29th of July 1879.

The first movement Allegro ma non troppo (but not too much) opens in a relaxed, carefree manner. And through no fault of the composer, the second theme sounds uncomfortably like Groucho’s tune " My name is Captain Spalding, the African Explorer…Did someone say a schnorrer?" The movement also abounds in snatches of rhythm evoking the polka. The second movement is entitled "Dumka"; a word of Ukrainian origin suggesting a piece in an elegiac mood, or a melancholy reminiscence, introduced into European Art music by Dvorák. The Dumka usually contains a livelier center section; in this case a fast Czech dance called the furiant. The pentatonic melody with which this movement opens, combined with the strummed accompaniment is suggestive of Dvorák’s supposedly American Indian inspired music, though he would not even reach American shores for another 14 years. Hearing this piece it becomes understandable why there has been confusion in the matter of what was Czech, and what was American in his later music – though we know that pentatonic scales (5 tone scales) form the basis of many folk musics all around the world, as well as appearing in much of today’s pop music. The third movement Romanza contains a lullaby-like melody, which undergoes various transformations, elaboration and embellishments. The Finale: Allegro assai is one of those pieces whose opening theme you’ll find yourself humming as you leave the concert. It too is based on a folk dance, this time the skocna a fast Bohemian reel dance - a wonderful piece for the Sierra Chamber Society to dance out the century and indeed the millennium.

1999-2000 Season, Program IV, Sunday December 12, 1999


Antonín Dvorák (1841- 1904)

Piano Quintet in A Major, Op.81 (1887)

 “Dvorák must be placed among the most richly gifted and versatile composers of the 19th century. Truly, like Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, he was of the race of those divinely blest and naďvely inspired leaders whose thoughts and emotions manifest themselves spontaneously in musical forms, and whose musical imagination gives itself out in an inexhaustible wealth of pure, fresh and fascinating ideas, in melody, harmony and rhythm. He seemed to be a late offspring of the masters just mentioned, and his nature, fundamentally simple and unsophisticated, was nevertheless innately intelligent, perceptive and witty, robust and fresh, tenderly emotional and gifted. He had an ardent love of nature, a firm and simple faith in God, a joyous optimistic outlook on life. Such was his disposition, which during his whole life always preserved the typical features of the simple peasant origin that coloured his personality and his work.”

Otakar Sourek 

Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op.81 was actually the result of the composer’s attempt to revise an earlier work, his Piano Quintet Op.5, also in A major. Despite the fact that the Op.5 quintet was well received at its premier in Prague in 1872, the composer became dissatisfied with the work and destroyed the manuscript. Fortunately, one of his friends had kept the parts, so the work was saved from oblivion. And so, some fifteen years later, he made extensive revisions to Op.5. However, he decided that rather than submitting the revised work for publication, he would compose an entirely new work. The result, which occupied Dvorák from August to October 1887, is a work of lovely melodies, and exciting rhythms evoking the folk song and dance of Bohemia. The first movement opens quietly with a broad melodic theme sung by the cello, immediately followed by a faster rhythmic utterance, which are then subjected to various elaborations. The viola introduces the second subject, another lyrical melody. This theme is also subject to elaboration. The second movement is marked “Dumka”, which the Harvard Dictionary of Music defines as “ A Slavic (especially Ukrainian) folk ballad, poem, or meditation describing heroic deeds. It is generally thoughtful or melancholy in character. A type of instrumental music involving sudden changes from melancholy to exuberance.” The pattern used by Dvorák can be described as A-B-A-C-A-B-A, with A being the melancholy theme, B somewhat lighter in mood yet still tinged with sadness, and C vigorously rhythmic. The third movement scherzo evokes the Bohemian folk dance the Furiant, which the Harvard dictionary defines as “ a rapid and fiery Bohemian dance, in ľ time, with frequently shifting accents. The trio section of the scherzo is also derived from the furiant theme, but sounds like a fond recollection of the folk dance, rather than the dance itself, which does indeed return to conclude the movement. The finale, Allegro is a happy and robust affair, including both a fugal and chorale section. The work received its first performance in Prague on January 6, 1888. 

 1 Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians- Fifth Edition.  St. Martin’s Press, New York. 1954

2000-2001 Season, Program V, Sunday May 20, 2001

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All original text on this page Copyright 2000 by Joseph Way