The Kennedy Center

Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Robert Markow

In both quantity and quality, Dvorák's chamber music output ranks as one of his greatest achievements, a body of works not surpassed by that of any other 19th-century composer. Part of the explanation may lie in the composer's fondness for playing the viola, a love he shared with Mozart, Schubert and Hindemith, among others. Of his thirty or so chamber works for strings with and without piano (trios, quartets, quintets, and one sextet), two call for the resources of the piano quintet (piano plus string quartet).

Two? Yes, for in addition to the work we hear today, one of the great glories of the chamber music repertory, Dvorák also composed fifteen years earlier a work (Op. 5) for the same forces in the same key. This work languished in obscurity, for Dvorák suppressed this early quintet, believing it unworthy. It was published only in 1959.

The Piano Quintet Op. 81 was written in just seven weeks during 1887 at the composer's country cottage at Vysoká. Chronologically it falls between two of Dvorák's greatest symphonies, the Seventh and the Eighth, marking it as the work of a fully mature composer as well as one of his most characteristic and idiomatic compositions. Indeed, it is ranked, along with the quintets of Schumann and Brahms, as one of the finest works of its kind. The British scholar Alex Robertson called it "simply one of the most perfect chamber music works in existence...the melodies are of the greatest beauty and freshness, and a joyous springtime happiness flows through the music. To violinist Abram Loft (second violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet from 1954 to 1979), "this is not a piece I would like to play week in and week out; the drain on my reserves of passion would be too great!" Dvorák's biographer John Clapham believes that the quintet "probably epitomizes more completely the genuine Dvorák style in most of its facets than any other work of his."

The quintet was dedicated to a Dr. Neureutter, a generous patron of music. The first performance was given on January 6, 1888 in Prague, and it was published by Simrock soon afterwards.

Two qualities of this music will strike the listener almost immediately: the fullness of texture bordering at times on the symphonic, and the wealth of inspired, romantic melody. We encounter the first of these melodies already in the opening measures, where the cello sings a radiantly beautiful theme in the home key of A major. Dvorák then puts the theme through a series of metamorphoses, including a statement in the minor mode. This procedure-the extensive working out of a theme immediately after it is announced, including the appearance of its minor-mode form-will be encountered several times more in the quintet. The equally eloquent second theme is first heard in the viola, not in the expected key of E major but in C-sharp minor (a so-called mediant relationship much favored by Schubert and Brahms). Frequent shifts of mood, from dreamy tenderness to tempestuous outbursts to visceral excitement, further characterize not only this movement but the entire work.

The next movement is a dumka, originally a type of Ukrainian ballad with a melancholic cast and full of nostalgic brooding over heroic deeds of the past. Dvorák adapted the dumka to his own needs, using it as a backdrop onto which he juxtaposed passages of a cheerful and even exuberant nature. Hence, the music is characterized by abrupt changes of mood and episodic construction. The movement unfolds leisurely in rondo form, with the principal nostalgic theme announced in the upper range of the piano, followed by a somber response from the viola. The first contrasting theme consists initially of a dialogue for the two violins, followed by a return of the opening material. Another new theme-and a new mood-bursts in with a vivace episode of vigorous character and sunny disposition.

Dvorák called the third movement a furiant, though little of the true Bohemian dance is found here. Instead of the characteristic alternation of triple and duple meter, we find something more akin to a fast waltz, or even to a Mendelssohnian scherzo. Abram Loft cautions that the Czech word furiant "does not connote ‘fury'; rather, it means an unrestrained and frivolous person. In any case, you could never be furious in this Scherzo; the movement is too full of high-spirited good humor to permit such a view." Regardless of what we choose to call it, the music exudes boundless self-assurance and irrepressible joy. The central portion of this ternary form movement has a more subdued nature.

The jubilant fourth movement, cast in sonata form with a little fugato episode inserted into the development section, brings to mind scenes of joyful rustic celebrations. Syncopation in the accompaniment lines, contrapuntal play, energetic rhythms, powerful sonorities, and a chorale-like passage near the end all play a role in this finale.