Dvořák: Sextet in A major for Strings, Opus 48
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) wrote his first piece of music when he was fourteen or fifteen and he continued to compose during his ensuing decade-and-a-half in Prague while squeaking by as a violist in a theatre orchestra, a piano teacher, and a church organist. He received his first real break as a composer in 1874 when he was awarded the Austrian State Stipendium, a grant to assist young, poor, gifted musicians—which defined Dvořák’s status at the time. In fact, he had to present an official certificate of poverty in order to apply. That he was given the award for four (perhaps five) years running underscores how little his financial situation was improving. Johannes Brahms served on the Stipendium panel and recommended the emerging composer to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock. “As for the State Stipendium,” Brahms wrote to Simrock in December 1877, in a letter accompanying the score of Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, “for several years I have enjoyed works sent in by Antonín Dvořák (pronounced Dvorschak) of Prague. . . . Dvořák has written all manner of things: operas (Czech), symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. In any case, he is a very talented man. Moreover, he is poor! I ask you to think about it! The duets will show you what I mean, and could be a ‘good article.’” Simrock lost no time publishing the Moravian Duets, commissioning a collection of Slavonic Dances, and contracting a first option on the composer’s new works.
Dvořák composed his String Sextet, his only work in that genre, in just two weeks, from May 14 through May 27, 1878—just as his reputation as a composer was beginning to escalate. He was experienced with chamber composition, having already produced nine string quartets, a string quintet, four piano trios, a piano quartet, and a piano quintet, not counting works that are lamentably lost, such as a clarinet quintet and an octet for strings and winds. Simrock issued the score in September 1879, marking a major step in Dvořák’s career. Already that July, the violinist Joseph Joachim (who we have already encountered in connection with Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet) organized a private performance of Dvořák’s Sextet (which the composer attended), and that November his ensemble took the piece public in a concert in Berlin. It was quickly picked up internationally, logging performances in London, Dresden, Cologne, Prague, Wiesbaden, and New York.
The second and third movements are cast respectively as Czech folk dances, the dumka and the furiant. When Slavonic composers began adopting dumkas for “classical” settings, they crystallized the dance as a work of ruminative character but with cheerful sections interspersed along the way. Sometimes the furiant, an energetic Bohemian folk dance, involves the alternation of triple and duple meters, but this furiant is all in triple time; most other composers would have called it a scherzo.—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.