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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 10

Dvorák Year

July 13, 2004

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Antonín Dvorák died just over a hundred years ago, on May 1, 1904. To mark the centenary of one of the great composers of the 19th century, La Scena Musicale takes a look at his music and his place in history, and offers readers a list of recent publications and upcoming concerts that feature the man and his work.

Cultural and historical background

The once independent country of Bohemia had long been a subject nation when Dvorák was born in 1841. The region had been exceptionally rich under Charles IV in the 14th century; Prague, with 50,000 inhabitants, had become the greatest city in Europe and home to the first university in central Europe. In the mid-18th century, Bohemia was swallowed up by the Austrian Empire and German became the official language, as well as the only one used in schools and universities. All expressions of Czech nationalism were quickly stifled until 1918--14 years after Dvorák's death--when the Czechs and Slovaks created Czechoslovakia. It had taken years of struggle.

This is a rather simplified version of the country's history, but the point is that during those years of foreign domination the Czechs were deprived of the use of their mother tongue and of much of their culture. As a result, music played a vital role in the preservation of national identity. Music was everywhere; almost everyone was able to perform, even if only as amateurs. Czech musicians were known to be among the best in Europe, garnering praise from such luminaries as Mozart, Berlioz, and Wagner. However, excepting popular music, the works played by these fine performers were always foreign. With the advent of Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), Czech music began a renaissance that was carried forward by Dvorák. In Bohemia and elsewhere, 19th-century music was to be an important vehicle of nationalist expression.

The music

What is so special about Dvorák's music, and what should we listen to in order to get to know it? Like many who are representative of national schools, Dvorák drew much of his inspiration from the folk music of his nation. He was well versed in the repertoire, having often played it in the inn run by his father. However, he never used the melodies per se. Instead, he absorbed the folk characteristics in order to create his own melodies. Thus, melodic invention is an important feature of his work. Brahms is reputed to have said that Dvorák had more ideas than "the rest of us put together," and that one could find major themes simply by gleaning his leavings.

At the same time, Dvorák admired the music of such greats as Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms and was receptive to the Viennese school's contribution to music. His work shows a felicitous blend of classical forms with the melodies and rhythms of folksong. The result is perhaps typically Czech--but above all typically Dvorakian.

Symphonic repertoire

Dvorák's New World Symphony, also called Symphony No 9, is probably his best known work. It was his last symphony, written while he was head of the National Conservatory in New York. He drew his themes from the music of African-Americans and native Americans, although Czech colouring can be discerned in various places. The symphony was greeted with triumphant enthusiasm when first performed. Nevertheless, opinions differ on its importance in his body of work. Critics generally agree on the significance of symphonies six to eight, which give a variety of insights into the scope of his symphonic talents. The 6th is often compared to the music of Brahms because of its abundant peasant and folkloric colouring and whirling dance rhythms; the 7th is the most solemn and profound, some experts considering it his greatest work; the 8th is the most experimental of all, highly inventive, untamed, and bursting with vitality. In all three, Dvorák's lyricism and brilliant orchestration can be heard.

Amongst works for solo and orchestra, the Cello Concerto in B minor is universally considered a masterpiece, ranking as one of the top works for the instrument.

Chamber music

Like Brahms and Beethoven, Dvorák composed chamber music throughout his career. Listening to his chamber repertoire shows how his work developed from youth to maturity. The following string quartets figure among his most important compositions: Op. 34 in D minor (especially the adagio movement), Op. 51 in E-flat major, Op. 61 in C major, Op. 96 ("The American") in F major, Op. 105 in A major, and Op. 106 in G major. This is a considerable output, but Dvorák did write 14 string quartets! The joyous Piano quintet in A major, Op. 81, is another peerless composition--brilliant and balanced. Dumky, his piano trio (Op. 90) is a close second to the quintet in popularity. The trio features a series of dances, alternately lively and sad.

Piano music

Most notable among Dvorák's piano works are his compositions for two pianos, where we hear the shared pleasure of music for four hands. Dvorák's publisher Simrock was eager for this repertoire, which was a big seller. The two volumes of Slavonic Dances were immediate hits and sold best. They were transcribed for orchestra, appropriately enough, as his writing for two pianos is highly coloured and almost orchestral. His solo piano compositions are completely different--intimate, and far from the virtuoso prodigies of Liszt. This is melodious, simple music, well worth listening to, though not generally seen as his best work.

Choral and opera music

Without doubt, Rusalka (1901) is Dvorák's major operatic success. Unfortunately, its soaring melodies are still relatively unknown to music lovers. His other operas are less pulled together, but the fault lies in the libretto and not the music.

His Stabat mater (1877), written after the death of his children, was his first real success and the beginning of his international recognition. It foreshadowed the qualities to come later in the Requiem of 1890. His last choral work, the Te Deum of 1892, was written expressly to mark his arrival in America, and is probably his most innovative composition for voice. [Translated by Jane Brierley]

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