The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90 ("Dumki")

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Peter Laki

In the "Dumky" Trio, Dvorák was more strongly and more exclusively influenced by folk music than in any of his other major works. This folk-music influence, however, did much more than simply providing "local color" or affirming and celebrating the composer's national identity. Rather, it brought forth one of the most profound artistic utterances in Dvorák's entire output.

In Ukrainian folk music, the name dumka was given to a certain type of song with a nostalgic, elegiac character. (Dvorák had a long-standing interest in the music of other Slavic nations;the "pan-Slavic" movement, which promoted the unity of all Slavic nationalities, was gaining ground in his native Bohemia.) Yet Dvorák did not use any original dumka melodies. He preferred to invent his own, and had first done so in a solo piano work as early as 1876. Dumkas served as slow movements in several of Dvorák's chamber compositions, the most famous example being the Piano Quintet, Op.81.

The idea of stringing together six dumkas to form a piano trio was a rather novel one, as the traditional four-movement scheme (opening-slow-scherzo-finale) seemed inalterable in 19thcentury chamber music. Yet here it is, a suite of six movements, all of which, at least nominally, have the same general character. How is it possible to avoid monotony in such a work?

Dvorák achieved a real tour de force with this most unusual formal plan, as audiences unanimously agreed as soon as the new work was introduced in Prague on April 11, 1891. Violinist Ferdinand Lachner and cellist Hanuš Wihan, with the composer at the piano, took the piece on tour throughout the Czech lands, and played it more than thirty times in five months.

Each of the six dumkas incorporates a contrast between slower and faster tempos-the former often coming across as sad and the latter as cheerful; the contrasts generally involve changes between the major and minor modes as well. But there are innumerable shades and gradations between those emotional states in the music, just as there are in life. And this is what prevents monotony in Dvorák's trio: each movement is a different personality, or rather, if we consider the fast and slow parts separately as we should, a different pair of personalities. Each of the six movements is also in a different key (in E minor/major, C-sharp minor, A major/minor, D minor-major, E-flat major, and C minor, respectively); therefore, it is not correct to refer to the entire work as the "Trio in E minor" as is frequently done.

The first movement juxtaposes a certain majestic pathos with a wild, syncopated dance. In the second, a melancholy Adagio alternates with a light-hearted melody that, however, stays in theminor mode and gradually takes on a furioso character. In the third, the slow theme is in the major and the fast one in the minor, not the other way around as before. The expressive cello melody of No. 4 continues with a playful "scherzando." In No. 5, both the tempo and the key relationships are reversed: a passionate melody in a major key is followed by a dreamy, "quasi-recitative" episode in the minor. The biggest surprise, however, comes in the last dumka, scored in an unremittingly tragic C minor. Its slow melody is perhaps the most poignant of all, and the fast theme ends the work with breath-taking dramatic force, without the slightest relief from the accumulated tensions.