Antonin Dvorak’s String Quintet in E flat major (Op. 97) has a singular impact on me: It enhances any feelings I harbour at the specific moment I am listening to that piece. Sadness, joy, melancholy, optimism… Which means that the music does not transport a specific feeling, but rather lays bare the feelings inside myself. The music breaks up the armor and makes me aware of what I feel. What a gift from a composer to mankind! It has been recorded in the 1990s by the Wiener Streichsextett and quite recently by the Pavel Haas Quartet along with Pavel Niki, a recording that I warmly, warmly recommend.
Dvorak wrote this magnificent three-movement-piece in 1893 during a stay in Spillwill, Iowa, and scored it for a string quartet plus an extra viola. The Kneisel Quartet performed the premiere in New York on 13 January 1894 and got a favorable review by the New York Times who compared Dvorak’s late style to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. By the time Dvorak wrote this piece, he was living half in Europe, half in the United States. As Jan Smaczny writes in an article for Oxford Music Online, Dvorak began in January 1891 to teach composition at the Prague Conservatory and was offered in June the same year the directorship of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York.
The vast majority of works composed in the United States were instrumental and many had of course to do with ideas inspired by America, such as the his Ninth Symphony “From the New World” and the String Quartet in F, Op.96 “The American”. What possibly Iowa could inspire I don’t know, I have never been to Iowa, let alone to Spillwill!
Dvorak and Mozart
I found it interesting that the New York Times critic draw a line from Dvorak to Mozart. Both composers have a come from what used to be the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, they share a cultural homeland. But there is more. Mozart did write a string quintet of his own, in G minor, for two violins, two violas and a cello (KV 516) – Dvorak’s configuration. And the two pieces have something else in common: the simple elegance of their melodic lines.
Dvorak wished “to write something really melodious and simple”, as Klaus Döge writes in another article for Oxford Music Online. Döge remarks that “besides the clearly perceptible American tone it is their simplicity that distinguishes these three works [the quintet, the String Quartet ‘The American’ and the Sonatina in G for violin and piano] from the earlier and later chamber music… This simplicity is reflected in the relative brevity of the work[s], the restraint of technical demands on performers… There is also less shaping of thematic material, leading to repetition (either precise or in variation), and less attention to development.”
Dvorak and Mozart wrote exceptional music and will be at the centre of several posts this year. For good reason. Hundreds of years after their death we still marvel at their talent and bow before their lasting idea of beauty.
© Charles Thibo