Dvořák: Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major for Strings, Opus 105

During his early years as a professional musician, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) barely squeaked by as principal violist in the Provisional Theatre orchestra of Prague, finding as much time as he could to compose. He encountered little success until 1877, when the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick encouraged him to send some scores to Johannes Brahms. Brahms was so delighted with what he received that he recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock, who immediately took Dvořák into his fold.

Thus was launched the career of the man who would be embraced as the quintessential Bohemian composer, both in his native land and beyond Czech borders. So acclaimed did he become that he was recruited as director of the newly founded National Conservatory of Music in New York City, where he lived and worked from 1892 to 1895. Once he returned to Bohemia, in late April 1895, he resumed the business of being a Czech composer. Following a four-month break from composing, he plunged again into his native culture and specifically into the world of Czech fairy tales. Operas and symphonic poems based on Czech stories dominated this final period of his career, along with a pair of non-programmatic works, his final string quartets.

His work on the two quartets interlocked chronologically. He began the one in A-flat major first, shortly before leaving America, and finished it last; he set it aside to write the one in G major from November 11 through December 9, 1895, picking up work on the A-flat major Quartet again on December 12 and completing it on December 20. This explains why the numbers don’t quite add up: the A-flat major Quartet, published as Dvořák’s Opus 105, is commonly labeled his Quartet No. 14, and the G major, Opus 106, as No. 13. Nothing compels us to adopt this arbitrary numbering.

Much has been made of the “American-ness” of the pieces Dvořák wrote while living in the United States. Otakar Dvořák, the composer’s son, apparently viewed the final two quartets as reflecting something of that American spirit, commenting that in the two late quartets “father recapitulated his successful trip to America and his happy return home.” The Dvořák scholar Otakar Šourek, in contrast, viewed these works as a sort of redemption from foreign influence. Writing of the last two quartets, he stated, “His particular artistry is shown in their expression, in all its purity and originality, rid now of the American exotic elements and also having nothing in common with the simplicity or diffuseness of the American structure.” Ouch.

The first movement opens with a slow introduction of serious mien, in A-flat minor; but this quickly yields to A-flat major, to a livelier tempo, and to a movement that is overwhelmingly optimistic and good-natured. That unusual beginning, however, advertises the highly chromatic nature of this quartet, which in the course of its half-hour will make many harmonic excursions and sidesteps. History-minded listeners may find themselves sometimes glimpsing the next generation of Czech music—or, to put it specifically, sounds that lead to the verge of Janáček in both harmonic and emotive content.

The second movement, a scherzo, has a dancing lilt; it seems in the line of the Czech folk dance called the furiant. The movement’s central section is calm in comparison, but its details proclaim considerable subtlety. At one point the Trio second and first violins (in that order) play out an ascending tune in canon (marked molto espressivo) with a complicated overlay of rhythms—four notes in one part against six notes in another in one measure, and then four against five against six notes concurrently in the upper three lines. Such things continue in the Lento e molto cantabile, now within a more lyrical framework. The simple, homey quality of its opening alternates with more brooding or even febrile passages, again with harmonic and rhythmic complications demanding meticulous attention from the performers. The Finale—very like Janáček in the motif that marks its halting opening measures—turns out to be a high-spirited romp, which Dvořák ratchets up to joyful abandon at the end.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the longtime Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.