The Kennedy Center

String Sextet in A major, Op. 48

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

In 1874, Antonín Dvorák was a little-known Prague musician whose income from his compositions and as organist at St. Adalbert's Church was so meager that the city officials could certify his poverty. That same year he submitted some of his work for consideration to a committee in Vienna awarding government grants to struggling artists whose members were a most distinguished lot ? Johann Herbeck, Director of the Court Opera; the renowned critic Eduard Hanslick; and that titan of Viennese music himself, Johannes Brahms. Their report noted that Dvorák possessed ?genuine and original gifts? and that his works displayed ?an undoubted talent, but in a way which as yet remains formless and unbridled.? They deemed his work worthy of encouragement, however, and, on their recommendation, the Minister of Culture, Karl Stremayer, awarded the young musician 400 gulden, the highest stipend bestowed under the program. The distinction represented Dvorák's first recognition outside his homeland and his initial contact with Brahms and Hanslick, both of whom were to prove powerful influences on his career through their example, artistic guidance and professional help. An excited burst of compositional activity followed during the months after Dvorák learned of the award, in February 1875: the G major String Quintet, the Moravian Duets for Soprano and Tenor, the B-flat Piano Trio, the D major Piano Quartet, the Fifth Symphony and the Serenade for Strings all appeared with inspired speed.

In 1877, Dvorák sent his Moravian Duets to Vienna to support his application for the renewal of his stipend. He received a letter in early December announcing that he had not only been granted another award of 600 gulden, but that Hanslick and Brahms also wished to help make his music known outside his native Bohemia. Brahms requested that his publisher, Fritz Simrock of Berlin, begin to issue Dvorák's works, and asked him both to print the Moravian Duets and also to commission a new work from his young Czech colleague. Simrock, much of whose profit was derived from the sale of Brahms' music, agreed, and in March 1878, he asked Dvorák to write a set of pieces in the Bohemian style modeled on Brahms' popular Hungarian Dances of 1869. These Slavonic Dances (Op. 46) were an instant hit. Inspired by his success, Dvorák composed a set of five delightful Bagatelles for Two Violins, Cello and Harmonium (Op. 47), and followed them immediately with a Sextet for Strings (Op. 48) that blends the folk-inspired idioms of the Slavonic Dances with the endearing Viennese lyricism of Schubert and Brahms.

The Sextet was composed in just two weeks during May 1878, and first given on July 29, 1879 at a private soirée in the Berlin home of the master violinist and staunch ally of Brahms, Joseph Joachim. The sonata-form opening movement uses as its main theme a melody of rapturous beauty given as a sweet duet between first violin and first cello. The subsidiary subject is a short-breathed motive of small leaps and skipping rhythms initiated by the violin. The skipping rhythms are given special prominence in the development section. A complete recapitulation and a long coda allow for the full appreciation of the movement's splendid thematic components. The middle two movements ? a Dumka and a Furiant ? so strongly impress their folk idioms upon the Sextet that Alec Robertson wrote, ?The work has the effect of a brightly colored travel poster advertising Czechoslovakia.? The Dumka was a traditional Slavic (especially Ukrainian) folk ballad of meditative character often describing heroic deeds. The Furiant is a Czech dance whose fiery character is indicated by its name. The Sextet's finale is a set of five variations on the theme given at the outset by the viola to which is appended a whirlwind coda.