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Antonín Dvořák (1841 - 1904)
String Quartets on period instruments

F10114   [8595017411427]   released 6/2002

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Antiquarius Quartet Praga
Václav Návrat - violin (Franz Anton Wild, Brunn 1792)
Simona Tydlitátová - violin (Johann Christian Partl, Wien 1791)
Ivo Anýž - viola (Michael Wuller, Pragae 1785)
Petr Hejný - cello (Pellegrino Zanetto, Brescia 1581)

"...with an almost prophetic certainty I say to you, they will travel the world"
When Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was writing the opening bars of his String Quartet in E flat, Op. 51 (which, from the title page of the autograph, we know was on 25 December 1878), he surely did not want to be disturbed. Yet, if we imagine asking the thirty-seven-year-old composer, while he was taking a short break in his Prague flat on Zitna Street, 'Sir, what number string quartet are you actually writing now?', he would have been extremely lucky to guess correctly that it was his tenth. His previous nine compositions for the genre had, after all, so far never been performed in public, and virtually nobody even thought of him as a composer of quartets. And yet, Dvorak did not abandon work on his tenth string quartet. For one thing, better times seemed to be in the offing: he knew, for example, that in four days, on 29 December, his Quartet No. 7 in A minor (Op. 16) would be performed publicly in Prague; the first violin Antonin Benewitz and his fellow players were in all likelihood intensively rehearsing at that very moment. The main reason for his optimism, however, was probably the fact that, only a month before, he had received a letter (dated 27 November) from Louis Ehlert, a leading German music critic, who had just made Dvorak (hitherto unknown there) famous in Germany: „In Berlin my remarks have literally provoked a raid on the sheet-music shops and have - and I say this without exaggeration or bragging - made you famous in the course of a single day. May God grant me full confirmation of my high opinion of your talent!“
     The work that Ehlert was praising with his 'remarks' in the Berliner National-Zeitung was the Slavonic Dances, which had just been published by Simrock in a version for piano duet. And that composition also seems to have had the same effect on Jean Becker, first violin of the famous Quartetto Fiorentino, because he commissioned a string quartet from Dvorak in the 'Slavonic style'.
     These nationally tinged works, made special by their local colour, became a much sought-after item in the nineteenth century. The means by which Dvorak managed to discharge the task, however, far surpassed the standards of his day. Although one can easily name a number of clearly visible external signs that point to select folk models in his 'Slavonic' quartet, there appear to be no literal borrowings of folk motifs or themes. What is truly essential in the structure of the work, however, is the high degree of individual Dvorakian stylization and the way he has formed the whole. True, he works with a polka theme in the first movement, with a dumka and furiant in the second, the third movement is in the style of a somewhat Slavonic romance, and the main theme of the last movement is stylized as a Slavonic skocna; but that, in itself, says nothing about how skilfully Dvorak makes use of more important and also more standard features, especially those typical of Czech folk music (symmetry, repetition and tonal relationships). What about, for example, the detail such as the first two bars of the introductory movement? Is it merely a detail? After all, Dvorak develops the subsequent thematic action out of the simple arpeggio of the tonic triad - not only does the main theme develop suddenly out of the accompaniment, but other thematic forms then also develop.
     The 'Slavonic' Quartet, was well received immediately, both for publication (by Simrock) and for a whole series of top-notch performances - first privately by the Joachim Quartet in Berlin, on 29 July 1879, and the Hellmesberger Quartet in Vienna, and then publicly, first in Prague, on 17 December 1879, by A. Sobotka), and then by the man who commissioned the piece - Becker with the Quartetto Fiorentino. Ehlert wrote to Dvorak from Wiesbaden, on 19 October 1879: „in your sextet [Op. 48] and quartet [Op. 51] I recognized the kind of work I had always wished you would write. They are masterful and worthy of the highest honours. Our friend Řebiček will perform them here this winter, and with almost prophetic certainty I say to you, they will travel the world.“
     In addition to a number of similarly appreciative responses to the Quartet in E flat, there were also a number of unfavourable reviews. And these were followed by even more negative reactions (some of which are often heard today) to the String Quartet in F, Op. 96, known generally as the 'American'. After the Ninth Symphony (From the New World), this is the second work Dvorak wrote during his American sojourn in 1892-95. The quartet, however, was written not in New York, where he had worked as Director of the National Conservatory of Music, but in Spillville, Iowa, during Dvorak's holiday. Directly related to this composition is a recollection by Dvorak's son Otakar: though they had just begun fishing at their favourite spot, his father unexpectedly announced that they would be returning to the house. The reason was that his father's cuff was now completely covered with music notation and he was impatient to get back so that he could transfer the ideas to paper. Dvorak then completed the sketch of the quartet in record time - a mere three days; the whole score then took him only two weeks to finish. Concerning the inspiration to compose while overseas Dvorak himself succinctly noted: 'I would never have written these compositions [From the New World, the Quartet in F, and the String Quintet in E flat, Op. 97] the way I did, had I not seen America.'
     In his use of the pentatonic scale, the flattened seventh in a minor key and syncopation, among other things, one can, indeed, observe the conscious use of exotic elements. Nevertheless, despite the matter of the specifically American qualities, these constitute only inspirational raw material. Dvorak later confided to his friends a more essential intention; for example, he told the composer J. B. Foerster, on 11 March 1895: „When I wrote the quartet at the Czech settlement in Spillville (1,200 miles from New York), in 1893, I wanted to write something really melodious and simple. I had Papa Haydn in mind the whole time. That's why it turned out so simple.“ Obviously, it is not at all easy to compose something 'so simple'. Dvorak's 'carefully composed simplicity' is far from banal. The wealth of melodic ideas throughout the quartet (for example, the melancholy song in the second movement) is playfully woven into the lively rhythmic structure with a remarkable naturalness. This work, despite its truly approachable, popular quality (something he is occasionally reproached for), is actually a perfectly polished masterpiece. Characteristic of the Quartet in F is its conciseness: it is not only the shortest of all Dvorak's quartets, but it is also the shortest of all his more challenging chamber music.
     Like the 'Slavonic' quartet the 'American' was taken up by leading interpreters of the day. First in the United States, where the prestigious Kneisel Quartet premiered the work in Boston on 1 January 1894; exactly one year to the day later they played the Quartet in F for the fiftieth time. Nor did Europe lag behind in first-rate concert performances. But Dvorak's music was also disseminated along other paths. One such path was playing music at home, usually in the form of duets on the piano, which was in many ways the predecessor of today's various sound systems. These factors, incidentally, are also helpful in understanding the perception of music at that time, far more so than is now generally realized. Among the Czechs who loved to play piano duets, and did so superbly, were Zdenka Hlavkova, the wife of the architect and builder Josef Hlavka, and Ella Spravkova, who was at the time a recent graduate of the Vienna Conservatory. Hlavkova proudly wrote to Dvorak in New York, on 4 February 1895: „Kneisel has played the Quartet in F major fifty times, but he plays it only once an evening. We, however, play it four times in an afternoon, and have therefore surpassed Kneisel. We still like it - and so does everybody else we've played it for.“ 

Jan Kachlík

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