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Antonín Leopold Dvorák (1841-1904) was something of a paradox among late Romantic composers. Though having achieved great acclaim both at home and internationally by his mid-30s, Dvorák, in his personal tastes and musical aesthetic, never ventured far from the simple, uncomplicated existence he knew as a young child. Mercifully, as an adult he was spared the angst, neurosis, and emotional tumult which drove many of his cultural contemporaries to distraction. Rather, Dvorák’s seems to have been a life of great joy and considerable emotional balance, notably influenced by his uncomplicated yet ardent practice of the Catholic faith. Along with Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn, he was one of the happiest and healthiest of composers. Yet, while he was feted and his music eagerly devoured by the European musical establishment, Dvorák was never fully at ease among the ranks of the cultural elite, instead preferring the simpler pleasures found in family, nature, and his child-like passion for locomotives.
Equal measures of great natural talent and unfeigned modesty might seem conflicting traits when one contemplates true genius, yet Dvorák, with his compelling personal motto of “God, love, Motherland,” happily embodied all those traits without an ounce of contradiction. Perhaps Dvorák’s greatest blessing was a happy home with his wife and children. This idyll, however, was not immune to the cruel arbitrariness of Fate; Dvorák and his wife Anna unexpectedly suffered the loss of their only son and two of their daughters between 1875 and 1877. It was the devastation of these deaths that provided the impetus for Dvorák’s poignant and heart-rending Stabat Mater in the winter of 1877. Yet, by the time he set to work on his string sextet the following year, neither the man nor his music would betray the bitter grief and despair of the preceding months.
Antonín Dvorák was born in 1841 in a small provincial town near Prague in what was then known as Bohemia. His origins were exceptionally modest; his father was a butcher, innkeeper, and amateur musician. It was his love of music which caused him to foster his son’s own natural musical aptitude. Though the family’s means were extremely limited and an understandable roadblock to pursuing music as a profession, Dvorák’s uncle helped finance his nephew’s education, which allowed Dvorák eventually to study at the only organ school in Prague. He became a proficient player of both the violin and the viola and supported himself by playing in a number of local orchestras.
Notwithstanding the shocking deaths of three of his small children, the 1870s provided Dvorák with considerable success. He received a sizable grant from his government specifically designed to provide support to young artists of exceptional ability. In 1877, Dvorák’s close friend and admirer Johannes Brahms persuaded his own publisher, Simrock, to offer Dvorák a very lucrative contract. In 1878, German critic Louis Ehlert wrote glowingly of Dvorák in a review hailing him as “a completely natural talent.” Dvorák was now beginning to come into his own as a composer and the world welcomed him with open arms. Though he was deeply impressed and influenced by Brahms, Schumann, and Wagner (the latter being especially evident in his Third Symphony), Dvorák affected a unique style while still conforming to the prevailing musical ethos of the day. His gift for melodic invention, along with his sensitive and generous writing for strings (no doubt acquired from years spent as an orchestral violist) allowed Dvorák to craft works of incredible depth, beauty, and astonishing sophistication while communicating his inner emotional world in a thoroughly comprehensible manner.
The Four Romantic Pieces, Op. 75 (for violin and piano), written in 1887, were adapted from Dvorák’s Bagatelles for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 75a. The Bagatelles themselves were written for a young amateur violinist to whom Dvorák rented a room in his house. Dvorák’s initial gift of his Op. 74 Terzetto, also for two violins and viola, proved too technically demanding for the young lodger, thus prompting Dvorák to compose a trio (the Bagatelles) that would fall easily within the abilities of any amateur. The “Romantic Pieces” that ultimately resulted from this musical benevolence are four miniatures of beguiling simplicity and unselfconscious lyricism. Here, too, we see traces of Bohemian influence in the raised fourth heard throughout the second movement.