Thursday, June 11, 2020

Dvořák's Not-Quite-the-Last-Word on the String Quartet

“This week’s dose of great music offers Dvořák’s grand and poetic String Quartet in G Major Op. 106 in a memorable performance by the Escher String Quartet, former BBC New Generation Artists and winners of the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant.” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.

This performance was recorded on November 2nd, 2016, the second half of a program that featured Mozart's next-to-last string quartet and Bartók's 2nd with the Escher Quartet in their first appearance in Harrisburg. They would return in 2018 for another program that would include Bartók's 3rd Quartet and Alexander Zemlinksy's 4th along with Dvořák's last quartet, the Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op.105. Curiously, both of these Dvořák quartets were completed in December, 1895 – and therein lies a tale.

Antonín Dvořák began sketching this A-flat Major quartet while still living and teaching at the National Conservatory in New York City, leaving town in the midst of the spring term in '95 when the school's money ran out and it couldn't meet his paycheck. After his return to Prague, in the midst of working on that one (something he was uncharacteristically having problems with), he wrote a whole new and entirely different string quartet, and it's that one which became the String Quartet the Escher Quartet performed on this program, the Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op.106.

(In case you missed that, Quartet No. 13 is Op.106 and Quartet No. 14 is Op.105. Hence, the tale – but more on that later.)

(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.)
All videos from Market Square Church are filmed by their audio technician, Newman Stare.
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It's in the usual four movements: the first one is in sonata form working basically with two main themes which Dvořák breaks up into more succinct motivic elements during the course of the movement. The development section is one of the finest examples of Dvořák’s compositional skills, with its complex evolution, mutual combination and transformation of individual motivic ideas ranging through some (even for the 1890s) daring harmonic encounters, all carried off with a totally unself-conscious spontaneity.

The slow movement alternates two segments in different tempos, one in the minor mode, the other in the major, even though the thematic material in both is essentially the same. This provides a sense of contrast on the surface but a sense of unity beneath the surface you might not be aware of.

The third movement, a traditional dance-like scherzo with a contrasting middle section or “trio,” may be the close of Dvořák’s “American” period – most of the piece had been sketched in America but not written out in its more extended form until he'd returned home. With the basic character of the movement, its rhythmical treatment and the “pentatonic nuances” often associated with folk music in its second subject, you can hear reflections of the scherzo from the composer’s “New World” Symphony, premiered in New York City in May of 1894.

Compared to the earlier movements, the finale fits a rondo-like pattern where a theme recurs in between contrasting episodes. He uses various mood changes which you can hear in the first few bars, before the initial restless atmosphere gives way to a bright and lively melody. As he often did, Dvořák brings back themes from previous movements, an approach usually referred to as “cyclical,” though Beethoven had done it and Bruckner continued to do until he left his last symphony incomplete at his death in 1896. But it's a good way to tie some loose ends together at the end of a piece, creating another sense of unity over the whole work.

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So, here's the tale.

Antonín Dvořák in 1895
In April of 1895, Dvořák returned to Prague following his stay in the United States, where he'd been teaching since 1892, aside from visits home to Prague or a summer holiday spent in Spillville, Iowa. But when philanthropist Jeanette Thurber's money ran out and her pet project, the National Conservatory, could no longer guarantee Dvořák his “then-staggering” annual salary of $15,000, the composer, long homesick for his native Bohemia, quickly packed his bags and left – bags which included sketches for two nearly completed works he'd been working on at the time, the Cello Concerto (Op. 104) and what became this last string quartet, No. 14 in A-flat Major (Op.105).

It wasn't until he was comfortably settled into his summer home outside of Prague that he began filling out whatever sketches existed for the new quartet. But it was proving to be a problem, for some reason – hardly an issue of self-confidence, considering the Symphony in E Minor, officially called “From the New World,” his Op.95, completed in May of 1893, which was then followed by a series of works originating during the family's summer holiday among the community of Czech immigrants who now called Spillville, Iowa, home: the Op. 96 String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, the famous and ubiquitous “American” Quartet written in June, 1893, the E-flat Major String Quintet, Op.97 (sometimes called the “American” Quintet) written mostly in July, 1893; the Suite in A Major (originally for piano and later orchestrated), Op. 98 (sometimes called the “American” Suite); and the G Major Sonatina for Violin & Piano, Op.100 (sometimes called the “American” Sonatina – get the feeling people aren't very creative about coming up with nicknames for Dvořák's American works?) completed in the late-fall of 1893.

Aside from some revisions of earlier works he also wrote some new shorter pieces like the ten Psalm settings for voice and piano and the seven Humoresques for piano (including the ubiquitous No. 7 with its occasional bluesy note, something you all know whether or not you know it could be called the “American” Humoresque). There were also two earlier “occasional” works meant to celebrate his stay in America (The Te Deum of 1892 to celebrate his arrival, and a patriotic cantata called The American Flag written immediately before the “New World” but which wasn't performed until after he'd departed these shores) which were published out-of-sequence.

Otherwise, that was it until he began the Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op.104 (considered to be The Cello Concerto) in November, 1894, which he completed in February, 1895, shortly before things fell apart at the National Conservatory (fortunately, it is not called the “American” Concerto). After he returned home, he then added a new ending by June.

Dvořák at his country home in Vysoká
As if he needed an excuse to “take a break,” happy to be done with the issues he'd faced in New York, homesickness aside, and ready to get to work on this new string quartet he'd already sketched, he moved his family out to his summer home in Vysoká in the countryside outside Prague – then hit a snag.

He wrote to a friend, “I am basking in God’s nature and I am contentedly idle, I am not doing anything, which will probably surprise you, but it’s true, it really is, I’m just lazing around and I haven’t touched my pen.”

Though he wasn't exactly slaving away over the piano all summer long, it didn't mean the little gray cells weren't firing away, consciously or not.

Apparently Dvořák got some ideas that didn't fit into his original plans. These new ideas, then, became part of a whole new quartet, the one in G Major which he began working on in November and quickly finished, dating the last measure December 9th, 1895. This became his Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op.106.

Perhaps that helped him solve whatever problems he'd had with the earlier quartet, because he now resumed work on that one and by the end of the month, about three weeks later, he'd put the finishing touches on what would now become his last major piece of chamber music, the String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op.105.

Then, for some reason, when he sent them off to the publishers, they numbered them correctly according to the dates they were completed but gave the last one the earlier opus number. Go figure...

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Dvořák was 54 when he completed these last two quartets of his. After that, he wrote primarily orchestral tone poems and operas, leaving the “abstract” world of chamber music, symphonies and concertos behind for the story-telling world of symphonic poems and operas. Three of these tone poems, composed in quick succession, even got their first orchestral performances (basically open rehearsals) four months ahead of the A-flat Quartet. And one of the four operas was Rusalka, written in 1900, a Slavic version of “The Little Mermaid” story, with its famous “Song to the Moon.”

After Rusalka's success, he completed one more opera, based on the old medieval legend of Armida (already used by Handel, Lully, Vivaldi, Gluck, Salieri, Haydn, and Rossini, among others), finishing it in August, 1903. It would be his last completed work.

Often, we don't think of composers (or any artists, for that matter) as normal human beings, only in terms of the art they've left for us to enjoy.

Did you know that, since the age of 9, Antonín Dvořák was fascinated by trains and as an adult could recite the train schedules of Prague's railway stations from memory? I'm not sure what that says about his symphonies or string quartets, but is it something you see the man who created the “New World” Symphony doing, spending enjoyable hours sitting in a train station watching the trains arrive and pull out?

This life-long fascination with trainspotting reached its peak during his stay in America, probably one of the few things he enjoyed about life in New York City. Dvořák loved to ride the overhead railway and often stood watching passing trains from a nearby embankment.

During his final years, he'd visit Prague’s railway stations on an almost daily basis. In April, 1904, the 62-year-old composer, despite not feeling well, made a determined effort to visit the main station in Prague so he could enjoy watching the trains but it taxed his already failing health. A few days later, he died of the flu.

Dvořák left behind sketches for several unfinished or even otherwise unbegun works, pieces he'd been thinking about or simple scraps of ideas wondering what he could do with them in the future, including a couple of possible oratorios and at least three more potential operas. But no more chamber music.

Dick Strawser

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