Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dvořák Finds His Voice

Dvořák in 1885
In all the years I’ve been blogging about up-coming repertoire on local concerts – these “up-close” essays about the background behind a composer’s music – I don’t think I’ve actually ever gone in depth with Antonín Dvořák. Maybe because it’s hard to add all those funny marks to his name.

I think mostly it’s because there are no in-depth biographies of him out there which have helped me get beyond the usual “and-then-I-wrote” summaries you usually find: checking at, even the most recent one, one only about his years in America, is out-of-stock; the others are either 40-60 years old and, like the memoir by his son, Otakar, out-of-print. One I located through more assiduous searching – again, unavailable for sale – is Michael Beckerman’s “Dvořák and his World” (1993) with copies in the libraries at Messiah College, York College and Franklin & Marshall College.

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UPDATE (8-10-2012) - following a comment just received from author Michael Beckerman (see below), I can now add this link to locate his "New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer's Inner Life" published in 2003. A different book than “Dvořák and his World” but, on further searching, I now find it is available for sale in paperback also through Barnes & Noble.

You can read earlier posts at my Harrisburg Symphony Blog about the "New World" Symphony, starting here.
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So let me put together a few observations about the Piano Quartet that’s on the program with Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic 2012 which Stuart Malina, Peter Sirotin, Michael Stepniak and Fiona Thompson will perform this Sunday afternoon at 4 at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center.

With early works by Beethoven on this summers’ programs, hearing Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Winds – and selections from the Op. 8 and 9 String Trios coming up on Wednesday night as well as Richard Strauss’ Piano Quartet written when he was 20 – makes me think of “where these composers come from,” what seeds in their early music germinated into the more familiar music they wrote in their maturity. With Dvořák, this is more of a challenge, but his biography – how he got started and became famous – is interesting in itself.

Here is a performance of Dvořák's Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87, found on YouTube.
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The 1st Movement is performed by members of the American Chamber Players (which, despite the cover photo, does not include a flute in this selection):

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For the remaining movements, I found these selections. Though the poster doesn't bother to identify the recording, he does include a score you can follow.
2nd Movement: Largo

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3rd Movement

(a Brahmsian dance-like intermezzo with some folksy twinges at 0:29)
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4th Movement

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Unlike Beethoven who grew up in a musical family at a royal court in provincial Germany – even if that province is along the Rhine – and Brahms who grew up in a major city, the seaport of Hamburg, Antonín Dvořák was born in a small village not far from a small town several miles from the provincial capital of Prague. And like Beethoven whose big break was going to Vienna at 21 to study with Haydn and Brahms who met the Schumanns when he was 20, Dvořák’s big break came when Brahms saw some of his music and recommended him to his publisher – when Dvořák was 36.

If you consider that was really the start of Dvořák’s career, by that age Mozart was already dead one year and Schubert, five…

As Grove’s Dictionary puts it, “his music is characterized by a remarkable fertility of invention coupled with an apparent, yet deceptive, ease and spontaneity of expression.” It’s interesting to trace how this musical voice evolved over the years.

His father – like Beethoven’s and Brahms’ (both, curiously, bass-players) – has been described as a musician even if his abilities were limited to playing the zither and writing a few simple dance tunes for the village dance-band where his son, taught by the local schoolmaster, would eventually play the violin. As the local butcher, his father’s intention was, of course, his son should go into the family business as he had done with his father, and though there may be much in the way of embroidered story-telling in Dvořák’s mature memories, the fact was he dropped out of school at the age of 12 to become an apprentice butcher. It’s not clear whether he finished that apprenticeship but a year later, he went off to the nearby town of Zlonice where he could better learn German and where he found more opportunities for his musical interests.

This need to learn German is significant. Ethnically, Dvořák is Slavic, specifically Czech – whether we call his country Bohemia, Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic – but it was a province of the Austrian Empire and a fairly backwards one, once you were beyond the city of Prague, despite its great historical past as a significant Central European kingdom (Good King Wenceslaus was, incidentally, just one of many good (and bad) Bohemian kings). This cultural memory was very strong even in the peasants who hated the Austrian rule. The only way anyone was going to get beyond the rural life was to learn the language of the “occupying nation,” in this case Austria.

Apparently acquiescing to his son’s wishes to pursue music as a living, his father sent him to another town in the north of Bohemia when he was 15 specifically to learn German, where he also began more serious studies of music, including harmony and playing the organ. A year later, he was accepted at the Prague Organ School – the city’s second-best conservatory – where he was preparing for a degree as a church musician. One of his teachers there was interested in “contemporary music” – in this case, Mendelssohn (who had died ten years earlier) and even that avant-garde composer, Franz Liszt who, by then, had already composed 12 tone poems, two piano concertos and his Faust and Dante Symphonies.

Dvořák had become a decent enough violist to play in the pit for performances of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Lohengrin – at this time, Wagner, in the midst of writing The Ring had begun a new opera, Tristan und Isolde which would change the approach to traditional tonality if not the course of music history in general. He attended concerts and heard performers like Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, though he couldn’t afford to buy scores – a senior student allowed him to borrow from his own library and also gave him access to use his piano. But he only won the 2nd Prize in the highly competitive graduation process, told he was excellent but better in practical work rather than, say, theory. It was not much of a recommendation for the real world.

So he made a living playing in the theater orchestra, in pick-up bands for restaurants and dances and the occasional student. When he was 21, he became the principal violist of the new “people’s equivalent” to the court orchestra. The next year, Wagner came to town and conducted the Tannhäuser Overture, excerpts from Meistersinger and Walküre plus the new TristanPrelude.

Dvořák at age 27
This was apparently the ignition he needed to start composing seriously and, not surprisingly, this early music imitated everything Wagner – his first two symphonies, a cello concerto, a song cycle (inspired by his love for one of his pupils: after she married someone else, Dvořák would marry her sister) and eventually his first attempts at opera which were almost produced.

It was a time of increasing nationalist cultural awareness – most recently ignited by revolutions and political uprisings around Europe in 1848-49 (the one in Dresden got Wagner, having just finished Lohengrin, in considerable hot water) and when Bedrich Smetana became the conductor, Dvořák found a strong inspiration in his music, especially his reliance on the folk music of their native Bohemia.

Dvořák was always having trouble making ends meet. At the age of 32, he was hired by a wealthy merchant to be the house musician – essentially the home-entertainment center, giving the children music lessons as well as accompanying the wife and daughters in their evening musicales. From this point on, Dvořák could rely more on teaching to earn a living which offered him more time to concentrate on composing.

A patriotic cantata was well-received but the theater again rejected his second opera, King and Charcoal Burner which he then completely rewrote from scratch. By now, he was abandoning his Wagnerian influences in light of Smetana’s, and heard Smetana conduct his 3rd Symphony not long after he’d completed his 4th. Finally, the new version of King and Charcoal Burner was produced. His music was being published by a small but limited Czech firm in Prague.

This gave Dvořák, now almost 33, the confidence to enter fifteen of his works, including these last two symphonies, for the Austrian State Prize, a major music competition in Vienna which was intended to help young but poor, struggling artists. The judges were the director of the Imperial Opera, the music critic Eduard Hanslick and Johannes Brahms. Dvořák won a prize of 400 gulden (I do not know what that might be worth today or how it compared to, say, an annual income in the 1870s). More confident, he began another symphony and a new opera. He competed for the prize several more times, winning two of them – in 1876 and 1877.

Those were the years Brahms had completed his 1st Symphony and then wrote his 2nd, still working on his Violin Concerto.

In November of 1877, Hanslick wrote to Dvořák informing him he’d just won a prize of 600 gulden and that Brahms had taken an interest in his music, suggesting to his own publisher, Simrock, they take on Dvořák’s vocal duets.

Two weeks later, Simrock took Brahms’ advice and commissioned their new client to write some piano duets inspired by Bohemian dances, considering Brahms’ Hungarian Dances had proven such a lucratively popular success. Published next year, his first volume of Slavonic Dances was well-reviewed and performed to great success in Berlin and London. His new String Sextet in A (op.48) was premiered in Berlin by Joachim’s quartet and the two Serenades (one for strings, the other for winds) also received successful premieres. In fact, his music was now being performed from Latvia to New York City.

This was also a time that makes Opus Numbers unreliable guides to the chronology of his works: not only was an early work given a higher number to make it seem more mature, because Dvořák was now having successes with several new works, he went through the pile of rejections and sent some of them out to new publishers. This time, they snapped them up.

(Incidentally, his earliest symphonies were never published in his lifetime and the latter ones not in their correct chronological order. When the other ones were brought to light, modern publishers back in the mid-20th Century decided to renumber them, leading to a generation’s confusion with “Symphony No. 7 [Old No. 2]” or “Symphony No. 9 [Old No. 5].” But I digress…)

However, when Hans Richter tried to program Dvořák’s new 6th Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, the anti-Bohemian sentiment among the Viennese musicians strongly opposed the idea and so the work was withdrawn.

Though people loved his dances inspired by folk music, the fact he was a Bohemian (essentially a provincial hick, in cosmopolitan Vienna’s eyes) writing symphonies was similar to the American literary elite’s reaction to, say, a red-neck attempting to produce the Great American Novel. Long gone were the days when many of Mozart’s respected colleagues were Bohemians.

Hanslick and others had urged Dvořák to leave Prague and center his career – as Brahms and Beethoven had done before him – by moving to Vienna but his national pride made him refuse their offer, “acutely aware of the way his people suffered under the Hapsburgs and of the continuing animosity of the and condescension of the German-speaking people toward the Czech nation.”

His 6th Symphony, despite the reluctance in Vienna, was well received in Leipzig and his choral music – large-scale works like Stabat Mater – was all the rage in England. London commissioned him to write a new symphony – his 7th, in D Minor, resolving to make it “a work,” he wrote, “which would shake the world.”

Suggestions he write a German opera rather than a Czech one were met with a large-scale opera based on the incident of the False Dmitri of Boris Godunov fame, if not Czech, at least still a Slavic story. But it was still rejected by Vienna’s opera companies: this time he was told, “the people were rather tired of five-act tragedies.”

“What have we two to do with politics,” he wrote to Simrock when he was told he needed to spell his first name “Anton,” in the German style. “Let us ne glad that we can dedicate our services solely to the beautiful art. And let us hope that nations who represent and possess art will never perish, even though they may be small. …[A]n artist too has a fatherland in which he must also have a firm faith and which he must love.”

Three months after his 7th Symphony was such a success in London, Dvořák began work on his Piano Quintet in A Major (Op. 81). He was now touring as a conductor of his own music – Budapest, London, Dresden. He was invited to teach at the Prague Conservatory (he waited two years before he accepted their offer). In June, 1889, Dvořák (now pushing 50) was awarded Austria’s Order of the Iron Crown and received an audience with the Emperor as a result.

He had just finished a number of other works: his Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87 and the Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88.

In 1891, invited by Mrs. Jeannette Thurber to become the Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvořák made a kind of farewell tour with some of his latest works: the “Dumky” Piano Trio and the Carnival Overture.

At this point, I’ll leave the story – how he wrote his New World Symphony and the “American” Quartet, two of his most frequently performed works and then, before returning to Prague, starting his B Minor Cello Concerto (generally regarded as the cello concerto) which had been inspired by hearing a cello concerto by an Irish cellist-turned-composer/conductor named Victor Herbert, later conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and winning more enduring fame as a composer of operettas.

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Listeners today tend to lump composers together into historic… well… lumps. Brahms and Wagner, though bitter rivals on the music scene in the late-19th Century, sound nearly identical to casual listeners a century later. We think of Romantic Composers as one group – Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler – and Classical Composers as another – Mozart, Haydn and the early Beethoven, at least. It would seem you need to be an expert to tell the difference between Mozart and Haydn.

Listening to Beethoven’s early Quintet for Piano and Winds, I’m reminded how strong Mozart’s influence still was, seven or eight years after his death – not so much his teacher, Haydn’s, at least in this work. The String Trios may have more of Haydn in them, but when you listen to the earlier string trios and serenades – and a work like the Septet Op. 20 which became Beethoven’s first big hit – you hear more of that lighter side both Mozart and Haydn knew to cultivate if they wanted popular success: the witty serenades and divertimentos written for courtly entertainments appealing to one audience, the operas and symphonies appealing to another, and chamber music, the most intimate of all, to yet another.

(Brahms’ financial comfort, by the way, was not the result of income from his symphonies and chamber music, but from his Hungarian Dances and a little thing called “Brahms’ Lullaby,” making him one of the richest composers of his time.)

Composers learned to compartmentalize themselves as needed: Beethoven could write grand music on a public scale like the symphonies, more private music for a more discerning audience for his late piano sonatas and string quartets (which had a difficult time finding anything close to “popularity”) but also arrangements of well over one hundred British folk songs because he was getting paid a good sum for them, or an obviously populist work like Wellington’s Victory (which he thought highly of) which, we tend to forget, dismissing it compared to his 7th Symphony, it’s contemporary, actually made Beethoven a popular composer at the time!

How else could a composer like Dmitri Shostakovich, writing in the Soviet Union, create something like his 5th or 10th Symphonies on one hand, what we dismiss as propaganda music (they considered it “patriotic music”) to appease the bureaucrats, jazzy musical comedies like Moscow Cheryomushky or the extremely personal string quartets he composed after being denounced by Stalin’s government for not writing music that uplifted the Soviet people?

On the one hand, “music that uplifted the people” might be what Dvořák found in works like his Slavonic Dances – written specifically to appeal to popular taste – or even the 8th Symphony with its medley of delightful tunes, “easy listening” compared to the more intellectual approach of his 7th Symphony, a dramatic symphony in the Beethoven-Brahms tradition. The 9th, perhaps, succeeds for being a bit of both: accessible tunes brilliantly presented within a structural framework of considerable craft.

All you need to do is listen to two piano trios back to back: the popular, dance-inspired “Dumky” and the F Minor Trio, otherwise generally considered his best trio and which clearly owes much to Brahms’ legacy.

Having tried Wagner and then finding more sympathy with Brahms, Dvořák finally found his natural voice in his native folk and popular music – perhaps even the dances he played with his father dance-band when he was a kid – then combining this with what he admired most in the Germanic tradition so that, by the time he was writing works like the Piano Quintet and the Piano Quartet, he created something that had both intellectual and emotional appeal, that blend of heart and mind that can be so elusive in art. We can enjoy much of his music without being aware how well written it is.

There’s one mystery that no composer and few musicians can ever solve: what is it that appeals to the public to turn one work into a success while another one is over-looked? As much as there can be justly neglected works as unjustly neglected ones, what is it about the Piano Quintet or the “Dumky” Trio that make them among the most over-played works in Dvořák’s catalogue and something like the Piano Quartet – which many musicians might prefer if only because they get to play it less often – is practically forgotten?

How many people in the audience will be thinking “Gee, I wish they were doing the Piano Quintet today…”?

Like songwriters from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway to MTV today, composers have always longed for some formula that would ensure success, like some magic pill that bring fame and fortune.

When I was teaching at the University of Connecticut back in the mid-70s, my students would ask me “What makes a masterpiece?”, and I would look at them and say, “if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be teaching at the University of Connecticut…”

- Dick Strawser


  1. Dick, I'm sure my New Worlds of Dvorak is still very much in print with W.W.Norton, and it has more on the New World.

    Nice blog!



  2. Thanks for letting me know - I'd done a search on it and only found references to local libraries, so I up-dated the post with a current link to Barnes & Noble!