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Serenade in E major for String Orchestra, Op. 22

About the Work

Antonín Dvorák
Quick Look Composer: Antonín Dvorák
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Music of Dvorák & Janácek Fri., Mar. 23, 2012, 8:00 PM
© Peter Laki

Like most composers in the early stages of their careers, the young Antonín Dvorák was struggling to make ends meet. From 1862 to 1871, he was principal violist at the new Provisional Theatre in Prague; he also taught music privately. In 1874 when he applied for the newly instituted Austrian State Stipendium for young artists, his file read: "Anton DWORAK of Prague, 33 years old, music teacher, completely without means."

Also by this time Dvorák was married and the father of an infant boy, so he had much at stake in this competition. Fortunately for him, the selection committee, whose members were conductor Johann Herbeck, music critic Eduard Hanslick, and Brahms, decided in his favor. As the report stated:

 

He has submitted 15 compositions, among them symphonies and overtures for full orchestra which display an undoubted talent, but in a way which as yet remains formless and unbridled....The fact that Dvorák's choral and orchestral compositions have been performed frequently at big public concerts made a favorable impression. The applicant, who has never yet been able to acquire a piano of his own, deserves a grant to ease his straitened circumstances and free him from anxiety in his creative work.

 

Dvorák won an award of 400 gulden; in addition, he had attracted the attention of some of the greatest musical luminaries in the Monarchy's capital. The young composer had made his first step towards fame and recognition.

Encouraged by his success, Dvorák launched into a series of new projects. During the spring and summer of 1875, he finished three chamber works, a song cycle, a symphony (No. 5), and the Serenade for Strings, an impressive output that reflects the composer's new-found confidence.

In the five-movement Serenade, Dvorák demonstrated the high level of compositional virtuosity he had attained by his early thirties. Using simple forms (four of the five movements follow plain A-B-A structures with contrasting middle sections followed by a return of the opening material), he nevertheless achieved considerable melodic and harmonic variety.

The Moderato first movement has a short legato theme with a range of only four notes, using imitation, followed by a second theme that has no imitation, and is introduced by a very audible jump into a new, and not closely related, key.

The charming opening theme of the second-movement Tempo di Valse is built of asymmetrical five-bar phrases, but is fairly simple harmonically. Conversely, the movement's Trio, which is no less attractive melodically, has regular four-bar phrases but contains some highly unusual modulations.

Imitative techniques reappear in the lively Scherzo; the central Trio section has broader phrases and slower note-values, though the composer insisted that it must be played "in tempo" (that is, the beat remains the same). The ending of this movement is especially beautiful as both the Scherzo and the Trio themes are recalled as if in a dream, cut short by a sudden return to the more agitated tone of the beginning.

The fourth-movement Larghetto presents a lyrical, harmonically stable opening melody and a more rhythmical and constantly modulating middle section. The concluding movement, the only one in sonata form, is the most complex of the five. Starting "off-key" (not in the main tonality which it only reaches later on), it has a normal exposition with three themes and a regular recapitulation, but no real development. Instead, there is a short and quite unusual middle section. After a few measure of suspense in which the first violins repeat two notes in highly unpredictable rhythmic patterns, the cellos surprise us with a replay of the Larghetto melody (fourth movement). The recapitulation is followed by a return of the first movement's opening. A brief Presto coda, combining the first and third themes of the Finale, closes this remarkable work.