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Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904)


Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
I. Allegro
II. Adagio ma non troppo
III. Allegro moderato

Antonin Dvorak was a Czech from Bohemia, a country once described "the most innately musical nation in Europe" as well as being famous for its dances and its beer. Dvorak was the eldest son of a peasant family who were outgoing and popular - his father was not only the village butcher but he also ran the main inn in the village, and was a competent singer, fiddle and zither player.

As a boy Dvorak learnt to play the violin, viola, piano and organ, but his father wanted him to take over the family butchery trade. Gradually however parental opposition was overcome, and Dvorak went to Prague to train formally. He spent the next ten years or so working on his craft privately, writing many scores which he destroyed, and earning his keep by playing viola in an orchestra and occasional teaching. It was not until his mid thirties that he achieved real success, partly through the friendship and support of Brahms, who was just six years older than Dvorak. It was through Brahms that he signed up with a publisher called Simrock, which enabled Dvorak's music to be heard all over the world - and made a fortune for Simrock.

All his life Dvorak retained characteristics of his peasant background, being neither intellectual not manipulative, but direct, open and honest. He was no idiot: he soon realised that Simrock was making more from his music than he was himself, and learnt to negotiate his fees upwards with some guile. But his non-musical past times were hardly "cultured" - he loved watching steam locomotives and breeding pigeons!

When Dvorak was 50 he was invited to become Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. After much heart-searching (and haggling over terms) he accepted, and spent three years in America. Musically they were very productive and saw the creation of the "American" string quartet and the New World symphony, as well as the cello concerto.

Written over the winter of 1894-5, the concerto was dedicated to his friend Hanus Wihan, cellist with the Bohemian String Quartet. When they discussed the solo part together, Wihan made various suggestions for improvements, including a cadenza towards the end. Dvorak turned down all these ideas, and these differences of opinion led to the first performance being given not by Wihan but by the English cellist Leo Stern. This was on 19th March 1896 in London, with Dvorak conducting. It was another three years before the concerto was performed by its dedicatee.

The first movement of the concerto opens in B minor like a symphony, with the soloist sitting idle while the orchestra gives us both the main themes. The first is the opening motto itself, soon taken up boldly by full orchestra. The second is the lovely horn theme, lyrical and expressive. When the soloist finally joins in, he takes centre stage immediately, giving his own version of both themes in succession. A climax follows, and the orchestra has its own way for a while - then the soloist gives us a new version of the opening theme, in the lyrical character we associate with the second theme, accompanied by a lovely flute melody. More development follows, and then Dvorak shows us what fun he is having by bringing the second, lyrical theme back on full orchestra, in the bold character of the first theme! A reprise of some of the earlier material follows, gradually getting more excited, until the joyful - almost ecstatic - ending in B major.

The slow movement is full of song, with the cello and woodwind soloists enjoying some lovely inter-twining lines. Analysis is unnecessary is such music; just enjoy the beauty, especially the way Dvorak is reluctant to end this movement - drawn out, wistful phrases of peaceful nostalgia.

Starting quietly and building up, the finale is in march time, with orchestra and soloist alternating themes. There is yet another of Dvorak's lyrical second melodies, warm and rich, and the movement is working toward a triumphant close when it is interrupted by a master stroke - a series of farewells reminiscent of the slow movement, where the soloist soars high above the orchestra, gradually descending at the end to leave the joyous closing bars to orchestra alone.

Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 & 72
1 Skočná (Op72, No.3)
2 Mazurka (Op72, No.2)
3 Špasίrka (Op72, No.5)
4 Serbian Kolo (Op72, no.7)

Dvorak wrote his first set of Slavonic Dances in 1878 in response to a commission from his publisher Simrock. The dances were hugely successful, Simrock paid the composer 300 marks, and made a small fortune for himself. A few years later, after repeated requests from Simrock, Dvorak wrote a second set. But now he was more astute. He had just written his 7th symphony, and Simrock offered him 3,000 marks for both together. Dvorak wrote back saying “No, 3,000 marks for each please!” - and he got it. Both sets were composed initially for piano duet and were then orchestrated, and were very soon being played in homes and concert halls all over Europe.

Our selection tonight comprises four dances from the second set of 1886. All are traditional dances of the region, which still exist and are danced today. The first is a Skocná, a medium paced dance in double time, with some slower sections. Next is a Mazurka, in triple time, gentle and nostalgic. Then comes the Špasίrka, which dramatically alternates slow and passionate sections with very quick. Finally a Serbian Kolo provides a vigorous and fast conclusion.

Symphony No. 7 in D minor
I Allegro maestoso
II Poco Adagio
III Scherzo, vivace
IV Finale: Allegro

Dvorak's seventh symphony, perhaps his finest single work, was produced when he was at the height of his career, with his new works being taken up quickly across Europe and North America. His sixth symphony, for example, first performed in 1881 had at least two performances in London within 12 months, and reached New York within another 12 months. His choral works were particularly popular in England, where they fed the English taste for oratorios gained through Handel (e.g. Messiah ) and Mendelssohn (e.g. Elijah).

Dvorak visited London for the first time in March 1884, in response to the success of his works such as the Slavonic Dances in concerts at the Crystal Palace. He conducted a performance of his sixth symphony, and also his Stabat Mater at the Albert Hall in front of an enthusiastic audience of 12,000. He returned to England the following September, this time going to Worcester to conduct the same two works, again to great popular success. In the meantime, the Philharmonic Society of London had elected him an honorary member and commissioned a new symphony. Composition occupied Dvorak during the winter of 1884/5, and he returned to London for a third time in April 1885 to conduct the first performance at St. James' Hall.

The symphony occupies a place in Dvorak's output similar to Brahms' third symphony in that composer's works. Brahms, six years older than Dvorak, had supported Dvorak in his early career and they remained good friends throughout their lives. Dvorak visited Brahms in Vienna in October 1883, where he heard his friend's 3rd symphony for the first time, and this seems to have inspired Dvorak. The first two movements in particular have a very Brahmsian feel to them, serious and thoughtful, starting and ending quietly, yet with absolutely inspired tunes.

The first movement opens with a quiet, sombre motto theme with a dotted note tail, firmly in D minor. The orchestra develops the dotted note tail energetically into a violent climax, followed by a beautiful and gentle second theme on the clarinets. In the subsequent development Dvorak shows that these very different themes can be related, and even combined. The development climaxes with the opening motto blared out triple forte by the entire orchestra, and eventually the tempo accelerates, as if driving towards a storming close. But it doesn't happen - all the energy suddenly evaporates and the movement subsides back into the opening darkness.

By contrast, the adagio opens in serene calm with a tune that floats peacefully. Violins and cellos then sing a winding melody with bare accompaniment, that has a slight air of unease about it. The unease is made explicit in a few hammered chords, and the remainder of the movement explores the tension between these opposites. Notice the wonderful tune given to the cellos part way through, that is followed by the uneasy winding melody and a powerful climax. The ending, however, is as peaceful as the beginning.

The scherzo is a vital and energetic dance movement that alternates between two & three beats in the bar, some of whose themes are directly related to those in the first movement. The outer sections are in a driving D minor, while the central section is slower and in a more relaxed G major.

This leads directly into the finale, whose introductory section opens with a cry of anguish followed by urgent mutterings. This gradually pulls itself together into a march-like main theme, followed by a romantic second theme on the cellos (again!). After a climax the music develops a swaggering gait that almost tips into caricature, but the march wins the day, and the symphony ends powerfully and majestically.

Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88
I. Allegro con brio
II. Adagio
III. Scherzo - allegretto
IV. Allegro ma non troppo

The music of Antonin Dvorak reflects the cultured history of his homeland of Bohemia, and is steeped in the Czech countryside and people. He was a man of the people - his father was a butcher and kept the village pub - and he shared the tastes of the people. He had a curiosity and interest in modern technology, which manifested itself in a passion for steamships and railway engines; when in New York he visited Central Station and the harbour regularly, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the New York train timetable! This "ordinariness" comes through in his best music as a real cheerfulness, and his slow movements, though often sad and nostalgic, never become self pitying or indulgent. Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, but only the last five were published in his lifetime. These were long known as "No.1" to "No.5" in order of publication, not of composition, and the first four were virtually unknown, despite all four being published gradually during the 20 years after Dvorak's death. Eventually, in the 1950s, the tangle was unravelled, and the current numbering - one to nine in order of composition - came into general use. The G major symphony was written in the summer of 1889, and Dvorak himself conducted its Prague premiere in February 1890.

The first movement begins with a cello tune in G minor, which plays a key role in navigating the movement: it recurs to mark the transition from exposition into development section, and again in dramatic fortissimo to end the development and begin the recapitulation. There is a wealth of other material in this movement, mostly derived from the limpid, innocent flute theme which follows the introduction, or the slightly pompous theme on violas and cellos which follows. The invention is constant, and the woodwind writing is highly effective.

The adagio is another highly original movement, alternating poignant introspection with cheerful innocence and celebration. The contrasts are great, yet Dvorak manages the joins so naturally that they are hardly noticeable.

The third movement is a captivating waltz-like scherzo in G minor, with a folk style trio in G major, concluded by a vivacious coda.

After a summons from the trumpet, the finale is a theme and variations, on a theme presented by the cellos. The variations vary in mood - thoughtful, triumphant, skittish and downright earthy! The original theme returns towards the end, this time fading into a stillness which is rudely interrupted by the triumphant and rousing coda.

Symphony No. 9 in E, Op. 95 "From the New World"
I. Adagio-Allegro molto
II. Largo
III. Molto vivace
IV. Allegro con fuoco

In September 1892, Antonin Dvorak arrived in New York to take up the post of Director of the National Conservatory of Music. One of his first jobs was to judge the prizes for a composition competition: the patron of the conservatory had put up over $4,000 in prize money for six classes of composition. Dvorak found much talent, "mostly in the German school, but here and there another spirit, other thoughts, other colouring - in short, Indian music".

Quite what made him think he was hearing the influence of native Indian music is doubtful. He certainly had very little chance to hear any real Indian or Negro music before he began sketching a new symphony in January 1893. Work on it occupied him for about five months, and he completed the work on 24th May.

The title page is interesting: written in both Czech and English it says "From the New World, Symphony (E minor), No.8, Opus 95". The '8' was later crossed out and '7' substituted, only to be crossed out in turn. Dvorak seems to have been oddly unsure as to how many symphonies he had written! The confusion was made worse when Dvorak's first four symphonies were lost, and for most of the early 20th century the New World Symphony was known as number 5.

The first performance was given at a concert of the New York Philharmonic Society in the Carnegie Hall on 16th December 1893. Dvorak wrote to his publisher "The success was enormous; the newspapers say no composer has ever before had such a triumph. I was in a box; the hall was filled with the best New York public and the people applauded so much that I had to thank them from the box like a king."

Though it has no overt Indian or Negro tunes in it, most of the tunes are clearly influenced by folk music generally, being short, simple and memorable. The exception is the famous tune in the Largo, which is long, but still simple and memorable. Dvorak said that the second and third movements were influenced by Henry Longfellow's epic poem "The Song of Hiawatha". This long and now largely forgotten poem presents a highly romanticised view of native American Indian life, a million miles removed from the brutal reality of their oppression at the time.

After a slow introduction the first movement has three main tunes: the bold opening horn call, the folksy tune heard later on flutes and clarinets, and a happy melody on the solo flute The whole opening section is repeated before a development of all three themes in increasing complexity and excitement leads to a reprise of the opening theme and a triumphant coda.

The slow movement, after a solemn procession of chords lowers the key from E to D-flat, introduces the famous tune on cor anglais. (If only Dvorak had received royalties every time this tune has been used in an advertisement ..!) A long central section includes references to two of the themes from the first movement, and the movement ends with a peaceful memory of the cor anglais theme and the opening chord sequence.

The scherzo is a vigorous dance, whose tunes sound very Czech (not American) in origin - especially the village wind band sound of the trio section. This movement too is haunted by the ghost of the first movement, a reference made explicit in the coda.

The finale sweeps along with great energy, built on the bold theme proclaimed by horns and trombones. A calm second theme on solo clarinet offers contrast, and then Dvorak includes references to several themes from earlier movements as he builds the symphony to its powerful and triumphant conclusion.

Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
I Allegro ma non troppo
II. Adagio
III. Allegro giocoso

Dvorak's rise to international recognition came about in the late 1870s, when he received a regular series of awards from the committee of the Austrian State Music Prize. The committee for this prize included the famous critic Hanslick, and Johannes Brahms. Through the friendship and support of these two men, but particularly Brahms, Dvorak gained commissions, he gained performances, he gained a regular publisher, he gained confidence and he gained financial security. But success never spoiled Dvorak. The son of a country publican and village butcher, he kept a taste for simple pleasures and friends, and counted among his hobbies an interest in steam locomotives.

In January 1879 the great German violinist Joseph Joachim had given the first performance of the violin concerto by Brahms, and immediately followed this with a request for a violin concerto from Dvorak. Dvorak agreed, wrote the concerto in the summer of 1879, and sent it to Joachim for comment and suggestions. For some reason Joachim went rather cool on the project, and it was not until 1883 that the concerto was first performed, and then not by Joachim but by a Czech violinist, Frantisek Ondricek, in Prague.

The concerto opens with a bold call to attention - a fanfare-like phrase for full orchestra followed by a rhapsodic figure for the violin soloist. Repeated a second time, the main argument of the movement then follows more normally. Towards the end, instead of reprising the main themes, Dvorak writes a cadenza-like passage for the soloist in which the tempo unwinds …

… and leads directly into the slow movement. A calm melody is sung by the soloist, which later leads into a stormy and passionate central section, giving the soloist an opportunity for a bravura display. The movement closes with a return of the calm opening, now on French Horn, with the soloist soaring ever higher above.

The finale is close in style to Dvorak's popular Slavonic Dances, being based on a Czech furiant dance. The tune comes round several times, orchestrated differently each time and separated by contrasting episodes, in a display of invention that never flags in interest and energy.

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