Dvorák: Bohemian Folklorist or Adopted German?

Antonín Dvořák began composing music at a time when nationalistic art found increasing sympathy with the public of Bohemia. From the beginning of his career, he embraced Czech folk music by synthesizing melodic styles, dance rhythms, and phrase structures of folk models within his musical works. While he did write some shorter works intended to rouse the patriotism of Slavs against Austrian rule, much of his music was intended for a very cosmopolitan audience spread across late nineteenth-century Europe. Dvořák was well travelled and perhaps more importantly, well educated in the accepted Germanic approach to composing the standard genres of symphony, opera, and chamber music.

Brahms and German critics praised his music for its craftsmanship; any mention of Dvořák’s inspiration as a melodist was treated conceptually. The anecdotal quote by Brahms “I should be glad if something occurred to me as a main idea that occurs to Dvořák only by the way” is representative of the sterility of Brahms’ own view of his younger colleague. Dvořák’s melodies are filled with cultural meaning to his people, but their packaging in a pan-European style of composition allowed for much of Dvořák’s wider audiences to dissociate the nationalistic implications of his use of folk models.

The Piano Quintet of 1887 was first intended as a rewrite of his opus 5 quintet. Unhappy with his first quintet, Dvořák soon found himself abandoning revisions of the early piece in favor of a brand new composition. During August and September, while staying in the Bohemian countryside, he composed the new quintet in a single creative impulse. Dvořák followed the nostalgic, sweeping first movement by a characteristic pair of Czech dances, the Dumka and the Furiant. The Dumka originated in the Ukraine and was a dance adopted by most Slavic nationalities during Dvořák’s time; it usually took the form of a melancholy melody alternating with faster, sunnier episodes. The Furiant is a distinctly Czech dance that characteristically alternates duple and triple rhythms in a lively tempo, although this rhythmic complexity is masked in the Furiant of Dvořák’s quintet. The Finale of this work is the most rustic, with swinging fiddle tunes that culminate in a rousing finish.

JH, 1.9.14

Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series

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