The Kennedy Center

Nocturne in B major for String Orchestra, Op. 40

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Richard Freed

Dvořák crafted this piece in late 1882 or early 1883 from material he had used in two early chamber works; he conducted the first performance early in the latter year, in Prague. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The scoring is for full orchestral strings. Duration, 9 minutes.

The chronology and labeling of several of Dvořák's early works are snarled and complex, and were painstakingly sorted out as late as 1960 in the thematic catalogue of his works compiled by Jarmil Burghauser. Like Robert Schumann before him, Dvořák would sometimes transfer a movement from one work to another, and sometimes vacate and reassign opus numbers already used. His publisher, Simrock of Berlin, added to the confusion by committing outright deception in order to make some of the early works appear as new ones when he brought them out in the 1880s. Both of these factors figure in the background of the Notturno.
Dvořák created the work's basic material in or about 1870 as the slow movement of a String Quartet in E minor, Op. 9. When he decided not to publish that work, he reassigned its opus number to a different Quartet, in F minor, and in 1875 recycled this movement, under its original heading, Andante religioso, as part of his five-movement String Quintet in G major, Op. 18 (with double bass as the fifth instrument). By the time Simrock published that Quintet, in 1888, as Op. 77, Dvořák had removed the Andante religioso and expanded it into a self-standing work for string orchestra (and also an arrangement for violin and piano) under the title Notturno, Op. 40. That opus number had originally been affixed to the Symphonic Variations composed in 1877-which Simrock eventually published as Op. 78. 

Quite a complex genealogy for this straightforward, uncomplicated piece whose title tells us all we really need to know about it. The basic tempo is Molto adagio, and the "nocturnal" mood is established initially in terms of dark coloring. While traces of the Wagnerian influence present in many of Dvořák's early works may be noted, the overall character of this music suggests closer parallels in the slow movements of Beethoven and Brahms, with occasional "pre-echoes" of some of Mahler's symphonic slow movements.

Once Dvořák found the ideal form for this music, he was quite fond of it. After conducting the premiere in Prague he suggested it to foreign conductors interested in his works; he introduced it to London himself in March 1884 and conducted it in several of his subsequent concerts, both at home and abroad.