Antonín Dvořák was born in 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy in Bohemia and some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should follow the example of his father and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end he left school at the age of eleven. There is no reliable record of his competence in butchery, but his musical abilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice, where he continued an apprenticeship started at home, learning German and improving his knowledge of music, rudimentary skill in which he had already acquired at home and in the village band and church. Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ School, from which he graduated two years later.
In the years that followed, Dvořák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzák which was to form the nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czech operas and The Bartered Bride had already been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořák resigned from the theatre orchestra, to devote more time to composition, as his music began to draw some favourable local attention. Two years later he married and early in 1874 became organist of the church of St Adalbert. During this period he continued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a series of compositions that gradually became known to a wider circle.
Further recognition came in 1875 with the award of a Ministry of Education stipendium by a committee in Vienna that included the critic Eduard Hanslick and Brahms. The following year Dvořák failed to win the award, but was successful in 1877.
His fourth application brought the personal interest of Hanslick and Brahms and a connection with Simrock, the latter's publisher, who expressed a wish to publish the Moravian Duets and commissioned a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. These compositions won particular popularity. There were visits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever at that time have won in Vienna. The series of compositions that followed secured him an unassailable position in Czech music and a place of honour in the larger world.
Early in 1891 Dvořák became professor of composition at Prague Conservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a venture which, it was hoped, would lay the foundations for American national music. The very Bohemian musical results of Dvořák's time in America are well known. Here he wrote his Ninth Symphony, From the New World, its themes influenced, at least, by what he had heard of indigenous American Indian and Negro music, his American Quartet and a charming Sonatina for violin and piano. In 1895 he returned hone to his work at the Prague Conservatory, writing in the following year a series of symphonic poems and before the end of the century two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.
Dvořák arrived in New York in September 1892, bringing with him as his secretary the young Josef Jan Kovarík, a violin student at Prague Conservatory whose home was at Spillville, Iowa. New York had some attractions for him. Although he was unable to pursue his hobbies as a train-spotter and pigeon-fancier, he was able to inspect freely the many ships that docked in the harbour and to pay regular visits to the pigeon- house in Central Park zoo. He was able, further, to experiment with the American whisky cocktail, nineteen of which in succession left him ready for a good Bohemian slivovitz. His duties at the Conservatory involved the teaching of composition and the direction of rehearsals of the Conservatory Orchestra, but the social obligations of his position he found irksome.
In June 1893 Kovarík was able to persuade Dvořák to spend a holiday with his father, schoolmaster in the Bohemian settlement at Spillville. Here the composer felt completely at home, among his own countrymen, and it was at Spillville that he w rote, in a remarkably short time, his F major Quartet, Opus 96, a work he was able to play through with the Kovaríks. The first movement opens with a theme as typically Bohemian as American, played first by the viola and the A major closing theme of the exposition, marked ppp, is introduced by the first violin. The viola leads into the central development and into the following recapitulation. The more melancholy D minor second movement has an expressive first violin melody, echoed by the cello. The Scherzo makes use of the insistent song of an intrusive Spillville bird, first heard by the composer during an early morning walk. There are two contrasting F minor trio sections, framed by the scherzo. The quartet ends with a rondo that includes an episode recalling the church music of Bohemian Spillville in which the composer and his wife had been active and regular participants.
Dvořák returned home for good in 1895 and the following year published the last two of his fourteen string quartets. He had started the A flat Quartet, Opus 105, in New York and resumed work on it after resuming his duties at the Prague Conservatory. He completed it on 30 December 1895, three weeks after he had completed the Quartet in G major, Opus 106. The latter opens with a characteristic rhythmic figure from the violins, followed by a descending arpeggio from the first violin, a process repeated in E minor and with further modulations. There is another theme in the tonic key and a third triplet theme in the key of B flat with accompanying cross-rhythms that are skilfully concealed in performance. The E flat slow movement opens with a suggestion of sadness in a theme that touches on the minor and is then freely varied, shifting in key to reach a bold C major, before peace is restored. The B minor Scherzo again introduces a characteristic shift of key down a minor third, before the principal theme proper is introduced by the first violin. There is an A flat major trio section, a return of the scherzo theme, now in G sharp minor, and a D major second trio section with great subtleties of rhythm, followed by the return of the opening section. The last movement, a rondo, suggests the main theme in a short slow introduction. This Andante sostenuto reappears in the course of the movement, followed by elements from the first movement. It is the principal theme that brings the movement to an end with some panache.
ReviewsThe Melos players externalize the profundity of this remarkable work with effortless ease. - Jan Smaczny, BBC Music Magazine, September 2001