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Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81

About the Work

Antonín Dvorák
Quick Look Composer: Antonín Dvorák
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Fortas Chamber Music Concert: Pacifica Quartet with Anthony McGill (replaces Marc-André Hamelin) Tue., May 20, 2014, 7:30 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

You would probably have liked Dvorák. He was born a simple (in the best sense) man of the soil who retained a love of country, nature, and peasant ways all his life. In his later years he wrote, "In spite of the fact that I have moved about in the great world of music, I shall remain what I have always been-a simple Czech musician." Few passions ruffled his life-music, of course; the rustic pleasures of country life; the company of old friends; caring for his pigeons; and a child-like fascination with railroads. When he was teaching at the Prague Conservatory during the winters, he took daily walks to the Franz Josef Train Station to gaze in awe at the great iron wagons. The timetables were as ingrained in his thinking as were the chord progressions of his music, and he knew all the specifications of the engines that puffed through Prague. When his students returned from a journey, he would pester them until they recalled exactly which locomotive had pulled their train. Milton Cross sketched him thus:

To the end of his days he remained shy, uncomfortable in the presence of those he regarded as his social superiors, and frequently remiss in his social behavior. He was never completely at ease in large cities, with the demands they made on him. He was happiest when he was close to the soil, raising pigeons, taking long, solitary walks in the hills and forests of the Bohemia he loved so deeply. Yet he was by no means a recluse. In the company of his intimate friends, particularly after a few beers, he was voluble, gregarious, expansive and good-humored.

 

His music reflected his salubrious nature, and Harold Schonberg concluded, "He remained throughout his entire creative span the happiest and least neurotic of the late Romantics....With Handel and Haydn, he is the healthiest of all composers."

By the time that Dvorák undertook his Piano Quintet in A major in 1887, when he was nearing the age of 50, he had risen from his humble and nearly impoverished beginnings to become one of the most respected musicians in his native Bohemia and throughout Europe and America. His set of Slavonic Dances of 1878 (Op. 46) was one of the most financially successful music publications of the 19th century, and the work's publisher, Fritz Simrock of Berlin, convinced Dvorák to add a sequel to it in July 1886 with the Slavonic Dances, Op. 72. (Dvorák received almost ten times the payment for Op. 72 as he had for the earlier set.) Simrock also saw the possibility of financial gain on the chamber music front at that time, and he encouraged Dvo?rák to compose a piece for piano and strings. To meet Simrock's request, in the spring of 1887, Dvorák dusted off a Piano Quintet in A major he had composed in 1872 but filed away after its premiere as a failure. His attempts at revision proved futile, however, so he decided to compose a completely new Quintet in the same key, which he did between August 18 and October 8 at his recently acquired country summer home at Vysoká. The composition was enthusiastically received at its premiere, in Prague on January 6, 1888, and quickly became a favorite of chamber players throughout northern Europe and Britain. It has remained among Dvorák's most highly regarded instrumental creations, "certainly the noblest pianoforte quintet in the world's literature of chamber music," according to the composer's biographer Karel Hoffmeister.

"Several of his friends have maintained that this Quintet provides a virtually life-like, full-length portrait of Dvorák," wrote Paul Stefan. "His joy in nature and his love of melody, his feeling of communion with the world, his quickly changing moods, that faint melancholy and anxiety, swiftly dissolved in the consciousness of his own power. Certainly we find ourselves completely under the spell of Dvorák's joyful singing and romancing." Dvorák's range of expression, melodic invention, and skill at motivic elaboration are abundantly evident in the Quintet's opening movement. The cello presents a lovely melody, almost folkish in its simple phrasing and touching directness, as the main theme. This motive progresses through a number of transformations before the viola introduces the subsidiary theme, a plaintive tune built from a succession of short, gently arching phrases. The main theme, rendered into the melancholy key of the viola's melody, returns to close the exposition. Both themes are treated in the expansive development section. A full recapitulation and a vigorous coda round out the movement.

The Dumka was a traditional Slavic (especially Ukrainian) folk ballad of meditative character often describing heroic deeds. The Quintet's second movement draws its form and idiom from the Dumka, as do Dvorák's Dumka: Elegy (Op. 35, 1876), Furiant with Dumka (Op. 12, 1884), and "Dumky" Trio (Op. 90, 1891). As was typical of the folk form, Dvorák's Dumka uses the slow, thoughtful strain of the opening as a returning refrain to separate episodes of varying characters. The movement may be diagrammed according to a symmetrical plan: A-B-A-C-A-B-A. The "B" section, quick in tempo and bright in mood, is led by the violin before being taken over by the piano. "C" is a fast, dancing version of the main Dumka theme given in imitation.

Though the Scherzo bears the subtitle Furiant, the movement sounds more like a quick waltz than like the fiery, cross-rhythm dance of Bohemian origin. The central trio is occupied by a quiet, lilting metamorphosis of the Scherzo theme.

The Finale, woven from formal elements of sonata and rondo, abounds with the high spirits and exuberant energy of a Czech folk dance. The playful main theme is introduced by the violin after a few introductory measures; contrasting material offers brief periods of repose. The development section includes a fugal working-out of the principal theme. A quiet, hymnal passage in the coda provides a foil for the joyous dash to the end of this masterwork of Dvorák's maturity.