The Kennedy Center

Quintet in G major for Two Violins, Viola, Cello and Double Bass

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 certified 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. Dvorák had just begun the G major String Quintet when he learned, in February 1875, that he had been awarded the Austrian State Prize. To celebrate, he took a short holiday, a luxury he had previously been unable to afford. He finished the Quintet in March when he returned to Prague, and submitted the score to a competition sponsored by the local Society of Artists. It won, and the work was premiered by the Society on March 18, 1876.

The G major String Quintet, one of the first works to show the composer's growing self-assurance and maturity during the years after he received the Austrian Prize, is full of typically Dvorákian delights. Its melodic profligacy brings to mind Brahms' jealous lament: "I should be glad if something occurred to me as a main idea that only occurs to him by the way." Its first, second and concluding movements are infected with the rhythms and melodic leadings of the peasant music that he had lovingly stored in his heart and his head since childhood. The composer's biographer Otto Sourek called the Andante "one of the most entrancing slow movements in the whole of Dvorák's chamber music... one flowing stream of passionate warmth, depth of feeling and powerfully affecting range of mood." The character of this Quintet, like that of its composer, is unaffected, sincere and immediately friendly.