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 at first have been expected to follow the family trade, as the eldest son. His musical abilities, however, soon became apparent and were encouraged by his father, who in later years abandoned his original trade, to earn something of a living as a zither player. After primary schooling he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice and was there able to acquire the necessary knowledge of German and improve his abilities as a musician, hitherto acquired at home in the village band and in 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, where he studied for the following two years.
On leaving the Organ School, Dvořák earned his living as a viola player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak, an ensemble that was to form the nucleus of the Czech Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor at the theatre, where his operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride had already been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořák resigned from the orchestra, devoting himself more fully to composition, as his music began to attract favourable local attention. In 1873 he married a singer from the chorus of the theatre and 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 to Dvořák in 1874, when his application for an Austrian government award brought his music to the attention of Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick in Vienna. The granting of this award for five consecutive years was of material assistance. It was through this contact that, impressed by Dvořák's Moravian Duets entered for the award of 1877, Brahms was able to arrange for their publication by Simrock, who commissioned a further work, Slavonic Dances, for piano duet. The success of these publications introduced Dvořák's music to a much wider public, for which it held some exotic appeal. As his reputation grew, there were visits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than might initially have been accorded a Czech composer in Vienna.
In 1883 Dvořák had rejected a tempting proposal that he should write a German opera for Vienna. At home he continued to contribute to Czech operatic repertoire, an important element in re-establishing national musical identity. The invitation to take up a position in New York was another matter. In 1891 he had become professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and in the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. With the backing of Jeanette Thurber and her husband, this institution was intended to foster American music, hitherto dominated by musicians from Europe or largely trained there. Whatever the ultimate success or failure of the venture, Dvořák's contribution was seen as that of providing a blue-print for American national music, following the example of Czech national music, which owed so much to him. The musical results of Dvořák's time in America must lie chiefly in his own music, notably in his Symphony "From the New World", his American Quartet and American Quintet and his Violin Sonatina, works that rely strongly on the European tradition that he had inherited, while making use of melodies and rhythms that might be associated in one way or another with America. By 1895 Dvořák was home for good, resuming work at the Prague Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. His final works included a series of symphonic poems and two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.
The Romance in F minor was seemingly written between 1873 and 1877 and published two years later. It was later arranged for violin and piano. The work makes use of a theme from the slow movement of an earlier composition, the unpublished and perhaps autobiographical String Quartet in F minor of 1873. The principal theme, heard first on the piano and echoed by the violin, is one of great charm. This frames a contrasting central section of some dramatic tension.
Dvořák's Sonata in F major for violin and piano, Opus 57, his second attempt at the form, was written during the first two weeks of March in 1880 and published in the same year. It has much of Brahms about it in the textures, cross-rhythms and treatment of the two instruments, although it lacks something of Brahms's mature complexity. The first movement opens with the principal subject, the violin answered by the piano in the second phrase. It is the piano that introduces the forthright secondary theme, material for due development and later recapitulation. The A major slow movement allows the violin to follow the piano in the first statement of the gently descending melody. Piano chords introduce a secondary element, modulating to a passage of gradually increasing tension, before the main theme returns. The sonata ends with a lively rondo, with an energetic dance tune framing episodes in contrasting keys and moods.
The Four Romantic Pieces, Opus 75, were written in January 1887 and are arrangements of the Miniatures written a week earlier for two violins and viola, composed, like the Terzetto, for a neighbour, an amateur violinist, and his teacher. The four pieces are certainly less demanding, whether in their original form or in the version for violin and piano. The first, in B flat major and marked Allegro moderato, has a simple charm about it and is followed by an Allegro maestoso that offers variations on the resolute D minor opening theme. The key of B flat major returns in the following Allegro appassionato, with its passage of violin octaves making greater technical demands. The set ends with a G minor Larghetto, dominated by the descending contour of its principal theme.
Dvořák wrote his Sonatina in G major, Opus 100, during the last two weeks of November 1893, completing it on 3 December, a fortnight before the first performance of the Symphony "From the New World" in New York. The sonatina is equally characteristic of this period in which the composer satisfied feelings of nostalgia by staying with Czech friends in Spillville, Iowa, while drawing on new influences, whether drawn from Longfellow's Hiawatha or from the spirituals he heard. It was intended for his own children, Ottilie and Antonín, and presents no great challenge to performers, while continuing to enjoy a high degree of popularity. The first movement announces its origin in a theme of predominantly pentatonic outline, after a suggestion of the song 'Clementine', while the G minor second movement, known to many as Indian Lament and so published in an edition by Fritz Kreisler, uses a theme that had come to the composer as he visited the Minnehaha Falls. There is a shift to G major, before this melody returns. The Scherzo again suggests both Bohemia and America in its first melody, contrasted with a C major Trio, and there are continuing echoes of the New World Symphony and the American Quartet in the last movement.
ReviewsThe players bring a strong sense of advocacy to the neglected F major Sonata. - Jan Smaczny, BBC Music Magazine, January 2002