Antonín Dvořák:

An essay by David R. Beveridge


Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was an unusually prolific and versatile composer. By birth, and for most of his life by place of residence as well, he belonged to a land and a people quite small in size––the Czech nation––but he had an extraordinarily broad and cosmopolitan musical purview. And he made richly diverse contributions to practically every genre of music. Most remarkable of all is his fecundity in the field of chamber music, where his bequest comprises perhaps a larger body of works than that of any other major composer after Beethoven, including thirty-two substantial multi-movement compositions for ensembles of two to six instruments (not counting many more that he destroyed).


Of Dvořák’s works for piano and strings, most numerous are the trios for piano, violin, and cello––a combination of instruments that seems to have held a special allure for him. He wrote at least six compositions for this ensemble, consigning some early efforts to the flames but leaving four fine specimens of which the two on our recording form the last, culminating gems. His proclivity for this particular ensemble seems to be reflected also in his activities as a performer: most of his performances were in the roles of church organist and violist in a theatre orchestra, but precisely in the genre of piano trio he made an exception, playing in more than fifty concerts as pianist in his compositions for this combination of instruments, including the world premieres of both works on our recording.


The trios on our recording are valuable not only for their purely artistic quality, but also in that they demonstrate well the uncommon broadness of Dvořák’s emotional palette, giving the lie to his frequent portrayal as a composer of a happy-go-lucky, unfailingly sunny disposition: both are predominantly in minor keys and gravitate primarily toward darker moods. It is true, however, that Dvořák’s outlook on life was in the last analysis positive, and he was a master at salvaging a convincing ‘happy end’ from the seeming depths of despair. Here, too, the works on our recording offer prime examples. Finally, perhaps paradoxically, they provide typical specimens of Dvořák’s compositional output in that they differ from each other so drastically––because diversity, too, is one of the hallmarks of his oeuvre.


Composed in 1883 and in 1890-91, these two piano trios both fall within about the third quarter of Dvořák’s compositional career. It was a time when he had achieved full mastery and during which he unquestionably wrote some of his greatest and/or most popular works, among the company of which these trios certainly belong. In most respects they can be considered representative of his output from this period, but they do stand apart from most of their chronological companions in at least one respect: as far as we know, they were not specifically requested or suggested by any person or organization, but sprang from the composer’s own internal urgings.


Alas, in identifying those urgings we must resort to speculation: Dvořák was notoriously tight-mouthed about the meaning of his compositions, and his personal life is in general rather poorly documented. Far from concluding that these pieces have no meaning outside the music itself, however, we must bear in mind that 1) Dvořák, as he himself admitted, had no skill at verbal expression, and that 2) as Mendelssohn said, the meaning of music is by no means too vague for words, but on the contrary too specific. And so let us boldly attempt in words, if not a specific description of the meaning of these works, at least a portrayal of the frame of mind in which Dvořák may have written them with some hints about the feelings they express.


***


At the end of 1882 and the beginning of 1883 Dvořák’s principal preoccupation, judging by the available evidence, pertained to librettos for his operas: Dmitry, which had premiered in October to considerable critical acclaim but with admonitions that the action should be modified in some ways, and a new text just being written for him by the same librettist, Marie Červinková, which eventually became The Jacobin. Dvořák and Červinková had several working meetings at their homes in Prague during this period, and the composer travelled to Vienna to consult the critic Eduard Hanslick concerning Dmitry. However, when Červinková visited Dvořák on or around 4 February, fearing his annoyance because she had not yet made a change he had requested, she found him involved in ‘other work’ and not even thinking of the operas. That other work was his Piano Trio in F minor, which he began to compose just at this time. Two weeks later, when he failed to show up for the first performance in Vienna of his Sixth Symphony, written for the Vienna Philharmonic, Hanslick wrote to him worried he might be ill. The composer’s reply: he was healthy, vigorous, and happy, and had not made the journey only because he was loathe to part with work on his new trio.


A bit of a workaholic, one might say, Dvořák was almost always happy when engaged in composition. But ‘happy’ seems hardly the right word for the prevailing mood of this new trio. On the contrary, it seems to express anguish and lamentation. Feelings of great tenderness abound as well, but with a strong tinge of melancholy––smiling through tears, as it were. Only in the final pages are the dark shadows thoroughly banished, as though after a catharsis. Dvořák completed the work on 31 March 1883, before making substantial revisions later the same year.


Unfortunately the period before Dvořák’s work on the Piano Trio in F minor and during most of the time when he composed it happens to be even more barren than usual as concerns evidence about his ‘inner’ life and feelings. We have no correspondence with personal friends from this time. Assertions found in the literature about the ‘spiritual suffering’ he was undergoing as a result of temptations to be ‘disloyal to his nation’ by abandoning Slavic subject matter and setting opera librettos in German are not supported by the known facts. However, one sentence in a letter he wrote to his publisher Fritz Simrock in mid-December 1882 does suggest what the trio might be about: ‘Your letter pleased me greatly and brought to my deeply-ailing soul a little dose of refreshment: just imagine, my dear mother will be buried today!’


Dvořák’s compatriot Bedřich Smetana had chosen the genre of piano trio for an avowed expression of grief over the death of his daughter, and Dvořák may have been following Smetana’s footsteps when, in 1876, he composed his own Piano Trio in G minor (the same key as Smetana’s) after he himself experienced the death of a child. That his Trio in F minor might also be a memorial to a departed loved one is suggested by the timing of its origin, this being the first substantial work he composed after his mother’s death, and by its general mood. More specifically, as the transitional theme in the first movement (beginning in the violin with three repeated notes in a dotted rhythm) Dvořák quotes his own song ‘The Cuckoo’––a bird linked in folklore with death which in this case laments that springtime cannot last forever, eliciting the philosophical reply that the cycle of seasons is good, that nothing can last forever and this is as it should be. In the trio the path toward this reconciliation with reality is fraught with pain, but the final outcome, as almost always with Dvořák, is a convincing affirmation that all is right with the world.


The form and general mode of expression of the Piano Trio in F minor are thoroughly in line with classical traditions as further elaborated by great composers of the romantic era, yielding a grand drama painted on a broad canvas. In particular we may note the inspiration Dvořák drew in this piece from Brahms. Although the Czech composer’s debt to his German friend and mentor is sometimes exaggerated in the literature, in this case we find specific allusions, almost surely intentional, to the latter’s Piano Quintet in the same key of F minor and his Piano Trio in C major (whose score Dvořák had recently requested and received from Simrock). On the other hand, in the second movement we may hear intimations of the Hussite battle chorale, an important symbol of national pride among the Czechs which Dvořák quoted explicitly in his Hussite Overture later the same year. The opening of the third movement then seems to pay homage to the Largo from Smetana’s string quartet From My Life (in the first performance of which Dvořák had played viola), and in the Finale we find the rhythm of the Czech folk dance called the furiant. Despite these disparate inspirational sources, in listening to this work we have not the slightest sense of incongruity: all is thoroughly digested and infused with Dvořák’s own creative genius.


***


In 1890 Dvořák’s main compositional efforts were devoted to his monumental Requiem, completed 31 October that year––one of his few works to end in a dark mood (though not, to our knowledge, responding to the death of any particular person). Something of a pall of gloom may also have emanated from battles he waged in correspondence with his publisher Simrock through early October, leading to a break of some years in their relations. Otherwise, however, he had many reasons to be glad toward the end of 1890: accolades reaped when he conducted his works in Frankfurt and Olomouc in early and mid-November, and during that same period news that he would receive an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. Meanwhile he accepted a position as professor at the conservatory in Prague, and earlier in the year Emperor Franz Joseph had appointed him among the first nineteen members of the newly-founded Czech Academy of Sciences, Literature, and Art, in which he participated actively.


Perplexing, all in all, is the disgruntled mood in which we find Dvořák in a recently-discovered letter he wrote on 28 November 1890 to his close friend Alois Göbl––which also contains the earliest datable evidence we have concerning work on his next composition:


Everything is continuing in the same rut, which annoys me. Well, here [in Prague] I guess it won't ever be different now! [...]

I'm presently working on something small, nay tiny, but I hope it will give you pleasure. They’re little pieces for violin, cello, and piano. They'll be merry and sad; in places it will be like a pensive song, and elsewhere like a merry dance, but in a rather light style, more ‘popular’, in short so as to appeal to both highbrow and lowbrow.


Two days later he completed the first of these pieces in score, and after progressing at a leisurely pace (in the meantime assuming his teaching duties at the conservatory) he finished off the sixth and last of them with the annotation ‘Prague, 12 February 1891’.


The autograph score of these pieces bears the title Dumky, which is the plural form of Dumka. On the manuscript of his four-hands arrangement of the work, made two years later in Spillville, Iowa, Dvořák explained the title as follows:


‘Dumky’ is a Little Russian [i.e. Ukrainian] word and cannot be translated. It is a type of folk poem, found frequently in Russian literature, mostly sad and melancholy in character, and differs substantially from the romance or ballad, sonnet, etc.


Dvořák had already composed five dumky going back to the late 1870s, as separate piano pieces and as single movements within multi-movement chamber works, perhaps originally at the suggestion of his friend Leoš Janáček. But this new trio was the only instance where he joined multiple specimens of the dumka, stringing six of them together to make a substantial work.


Our composer was no literary scholar and no musicologist (ethno- or otherwise);  we can only speculate to what extent he was familiar with Ukrainian folklore or indeed, to any great extent, with folklore in general. One of his best-known dumky, the second movement of his famous (second) Piano Quintet from 1887, is in many respects patterned after a model that might surprise us: the analogous movement in the Piano Quintet by Schumann, who as far as we know had nothing like a dumka in mind. One of the features shared by Schumann’s movement and Dvořák’s homage thereto is a sectional structure with highly contrasting moods involving changes in tempo, mode, and meter. These traits are found also in Dvořák’s Dumky for piano trio from 1890-91. What makes Dvořák’s dumka different from Schumann, in the quintet to some extent but even more so in the trio, is a somewhat exotic character alluding to some folkish style––perhaps Slavic, perhaps Gypsy, perhaps Hungarian (comparisons have been drawn with the czardas)––but in any case decidedly rustic and somehow ‘from a different world’. Dvořák himself adamantly refused to give any explanation beyond the statements quoted above. When asked by his friend Karel Pippich whether he had any poetic images in mind when composing the Dumky trio––perhaps a certain landscape, a certain poetic and situational atmosphere, local color, etc.––the composer replied in the negative, saying ‘I only wanted to express in general the impression of a dumka.’


In comparison with Dvořák’s Piano Trio in F minor, his Dumky for this same ensemble are in most respects much simpler––in phrase structure, motivic relations, harmony, and especially texture, which here is extraordinarily transparent and delicate. Yet the Dumky are endlessly fresh and engaging in their own way, exploiting among other things coloristic effects in the individual instruments and in relations among them. Both works present strong contrasts in mood, but whereas those in the F minor Trio seem full of weighty import and long-term consequences, in the Dumky they mostly flit like glimmers of light reflected on the surface of a lake, or patterns of color in a kaleidoscope suddenly shifting at the touch of a finger. In accordance with Dvořák’s explanation of the title, ‘sad and melancholy’ moods are probably most prevalent––but the shifts are so frequent and so striking that one almost loses track, and the prevailing tendency, repeated many times in many ways, is to move from gloom toward vigor (be it demonic or merry vigor, or perhaps both).


Dvořák’s Dumky for piano trio are indeed rather ‘small’, as he wrote to Göbl, though his description of them as ‘tiny’ was an exaggeration. Together the six pieces form a work somewhat shorter than the four movements of the Trio in F minor. They constitute no coherent whole when measured by the usual criteria: in vain do we seek unity of key, significant motivic relations linking the pieces to each other, or any standard formal scheme. Yet Dvořák himself always performed them as a whole, and indeed they seem to form a single cogent utterance––one whose coherence is, to cite once more the adage of Mendelssohn, ‘too specific for words’.


We need not be surprised that each of Dvořák’s last two works for piano, violin, and cello––the Piano Trio in F minor and the Dumky––has found its own distinctive niche among his most beloved and often-performed compositions, each forming a brilliant gem in the treasury of worldwide chamber music literature.


***

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    David R. Beveridge, a native of Ohio, earned his Ph.D. in music history and literature at the University of California in Berkeley and taught at various American colleges and universities before settling permanently in the Czech Republic in 1993. Since that time he has been earning his living alternately as a translator and as a musicologist specializing in the life and work of Antonín Dvořák, writing a comprehensive treatment of those topics in English with support of such agencies as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic. Recently he finished a smaller book in Czech about relations among Dvořák, Josef Hlávka (architect, builder, and patron), and their wives with support from the Hlávka Foundation in Prague. He has lectured on various musical topics for innumerable Czech and international groups in the Czech Republic and in Vienna.

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