Program Notes

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 87 (1889)

Notes for: July 15, 2008

The year 1889 was one of the most fulfilling of Dvořák’s life. After years of struggle, his music, with its infusion of Czech folk elements, was being played all over Europe, and performing groups vied for the premiere performances of his new works. Dvořák himself was conducting before enthusiastic audiences in England and Germany, and he declined an appointment as professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory because of his busy concert schedule. Still to come were his three years in the United States as director of a new conservatory in New York City and where he would compose his Symphony “From the New World.”

Thanks to the interest of his new friend Tchaikovsky, Dvořák was invited to conduct the following spring in Moscow and St. Petersburg. (Tchaikovsky visited him twice in Prague and referred to him in letters home as “the dear funny fellow.”) Another friend, Brahms, kept up his efforts to persuade Dvořák to move to Vienna, the music capital of Europe and, Brahms argued, a more appropriate location for a composer of Dvořák’s international stature than the cultural hinterland of Bohemia. And finally, notwithstanding his nationalist loyalty to Czech culture, Dvořák was awarded the Austrian Order of the Iron Cross and a personal audience with Emperor Franz Joseph.

During this round of activities, Dvořák somehow found time to compose two major works – the Symphony in G Major, Op. 88, and this Piano Quartet. Reflecting his mellow mood, they are among his most delightful compositions.

The Piano Quartet was the delayed fulfillment of an old commitment. Four years earlier, following the success of an earlier piano quartet, his German publisher Simrock had persuaded him to agree to write a sequel, but Dvořák was preoccupied with other compositions. At last, in July, 1889, he began sketching the work, and in August was able to write a friend:

“I’ve now finished three movements of a new piano quartet, and the finale will be ready in a few days. As I expected, it came easily, and the melodies just surged upon me. Thanks Be to God!”

The quartet opens with a question-and-answer theme to take advantage of the contrast in sonorities between the piano and the strings. The strings, in unison, proclaim a muscular four-measure motive, and the piano gives a bantering, almost frivolous, reply. There is a contrasting second theme in the unexpected key of G major, but the two elements of the main theme dominate the development.

The recapitulation skips the first theme entirely, but the theme returns to open the coda. The coda has an ingenious touch – a quiet meditative version of the main theme played tremolando by the violin and viola, supported by isolated piano chords and plucked notes in the cello.

The slow movement has five themes, each with its own distinct character. The first, played by the cello, is intense and romantic. The second, more aloof, is presented by the violin. The piano has the third, more agitated, theme. A series of chromatic octaves for the piano leads to the stormy fourth theme unleashed by the full group, and this is followed by the plaintive fifth theme for the piano alone. Dvořák then repeats the themes with little change.

The engaging third movement is a showcase for Dvořák’s affection for folk dances. The main section is in the rhythm of a sousedská, a Bohemian country dance in leisurely 3/4 time, which was a relative of the Austrian ländler, the precursor of the waltz. There is a second theme in the rhythm of a mazurka, a Polish country dance in moderate triple time, which had become popular in Bohemia. At one point, the piano imitates a cimbalom, a large hammered dulcimer often used in Czech folk bands. In the trio, a hopping theme is animated by restless triplets.

There is a gypsy flavor to the finale, which though good-natured in feeling, begins in E flat minor. Again, Dvořák is generous in his themes, including a soaring melody for the viola, Dvořák’s favorite instrument in chamber music. Eventually, the tonic E flat major prevails, and the quartet ends in cheerful high spirits and with a burst of energy that some say calls for the tonal resources of a full orchestra.

Copyright © 2008 by Willard J. Hertz