Chamber Music: Dvořák & Brahms - COMPLETE PROGRAM NOTES

Antonín Dvorˇák (1841-1904)

In January 1891, Dvorˇák began a new job, as professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory. (It was a short-lived post. He left for the U.S. in September 1892 to take up a similar position with the new National Conservatory in New York City, which had offered him 25 times what Prague paid him.) By that time, he was his country’s most eminent musician, and a natural choice to be named honorary chairman of the music division for the Provincial Jubilee Exhibition held in Prague later that year and tasked with composing a brief fanfare for the opening (May 15) and other important occasions during the Exhibition.

This Exhibition marked the 100th anniversary of an international industrial fair held in Prague to honor the coronation of Austrian Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in 1791. As Bohemia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 100 years later, Dvorˇák alluded to the opening of the Austrian national anthem in his Fanfares for Four Trumpets and Timpani, which proved quite successful, according to an account by the contemporary writer Ignát Horˇica: “At eight minutes after the tenth hour, from the battlements of the main gate, came the pleasing and ceremonial sound of fanfares which were greeted by deafening cheers from the vast crowds down below, who had gathered in the open space in front of the exhibition... The sound of the fanfares lled those assembled with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and triumph, and drove the people’s enthusiasm towards a state of emotional fervor.”

The Serenade in D minor, Op. 44 comes from the period when Dvorˇák’s works were nally making an international mark. Ironically, this came after he made a conscious turn away from Germanic – and Wagnerian, specifically – influence to a more localized musical esthetic, studying Slavonic folklore to inspiring effect. In the mid-1870s his works began to earn cash stipends from the Austrian government, and when Brahms encountered his music as juror on the committee that awarded the stipends, Brahms encouraged his own Berlin publisher, Simrock, to take on Dvorˇák’s music. Brahms wrote to Simrock in December 1877; the publisher accepted some of Dvorˇák’s existing music (particularly the Moravian Duets) and commissioned new works, of which the first set of Slavonic Dances (for piano four-hands, later orchestrated) were a huge hit in the domestic sheet music market when they were issued in November 1878.

The Serenade had been written in January that year, and was premiered in Prague just two days after the Slavonic Dances came out. Serenades were traditionally an entertainment genre, a kind of outdoorsy “symphony-lite” that offered the readily accessible musical pleasures Dvorˇák was now so creatively supplying. He certainly produced all the ingratiating charm expected of a serenade, with an uncommon measure of thematic unity and formal craft. The opening movement is built around a strutting march, with a rustic dance for contrast. The second movement is a charming Minuet, with a quickly bounding Trio section. There is time for reflection in the third movement, but of a romantically yearning sort, a pastoral idyll not without dark clouds. The high-spirited finale includes a reprise of the opening march among boisterous dancing.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

In March 1891 Brahms visited Meiningen, where a private performance by the highly- regarded clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld was arranged for the composer. Brahms was entranced with Mühlfeld’s sweet tone and moving interpretations and that summer he composed the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and the Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115. These works were premiered in Berlin that year with Mühlfeld in both works (with Brahms himself in the Trio and the Joachim Quartet in the Quintet). Their popular suc- cess was immediate (the Quintet had 50 performances in its first two seasons) and in 1894 Brahms composed two Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120, which he and Mühlfeld toured throughout Germany and Austria. Brahms was so pleased and impressed that he gave all the fees from their peformances to Mühlfeld, as well as lifetime performing rights and the manuscripts of both sonatas.

The four movements of the Clarinet Quintet are connected by a web of motivic cross-references – so much so that the Quintet as a whole seems in retrospect to be a set of variations seeking its theme, which it nds in the Finale, itself a theme with ve variations and a coda. The sense of elegiac reflection is unmistakable, but this is also music of great emotional urgency and creative passion. The finely spun, arching tranquility of the Adagio, for example, is interrupted by an anxious, rhapsodic middle section that could have come directly from one of Brahms’ slower Hungarian Dances. Yet both sections are built from the same motive, heard at the beginning in the clarinet.

“How the subtle fusion of the instruments, with the soft and insistent wail of the clarinet above them, lays hold of one,” Clara Schumann wrote to Brahms after she heard the work. “The joy that I had survives in my heart and for that I am grateful.”