The spirit of folk music, which is to say folk stylizations, since the melodies are inevitably his own, is at the heart of Antonín Dvorák’s mature compositions. In his Op. 90, the last of the great Bohemian’s four trios for piano, violin, and cello, he is both at his most original and his folksiest: even the formal layout is derived from the music of “the people” rather than from a classical style.
The Trio was completed in Prague in 1891, following a string of successes and unprecedented acclaim within and outside the Czech borders. Dvorák had recently been appointed professor of composition and instrumentation at the Prague Conservatory. An honorary doctorate from Cambridge followed. In Germany the Hussite Overture (from 1883) and the recent G-major Symphony (Op. 88) were rapturously received; the likewise recent E-flat Piano Quartet, Op. 84, and the Piano Quintet in the same key (written three years earlier), Op. 81, met similar approbation at their first Vienna performances and then throughout Germany. England, which had already capitulated to him and his creations a decade earlier, was honored (in Birmingham) with the world premiere of his Requiem in October of ’91, several months after his being invited to assume the directorship of the newly established American Conservatory of Music in New York, resulting in a four-year-long sojourn on these shores. It was in all a good year. A very good year.
The subtitle of the Op. 90 Trio, “Dumky” (plural of dumka), describes the style of all six of its movements, a dumka being a Slavic (some sources state specifically Ukrainian) folk song marked by abrupt changes from doleful to exuberant. Op. 90 was introduced in February of 1891 by violinist Ferdinand Lachner, cellist Hanus? Wihan, to whom Dvorák would later dedicate his Cello Concerto, with the composer at the piano. The performance took place in conjunction with Dvorák’s being awarded an honorary doctorate by the Charles University of Prague. Tradition has it that pre-publication proofs were read by his good friend Johannes Brahms while Dvorák was in America.
It isn’t obvious at first, but the work has a discernible form, although not the sonata form of Dvorák's prior trios. The first three dumky are a subtly connected whole: “confirmation of this,” according to Dvorák scholar Otakar S?ourek, “is not only in the ‘attacca subito’ after the first two, as compared with ‘a short pause’ after the others, but in the logical unity of the content, from the cries of anguished lamentation to quiet mourning, followed by the heart-balm of consolation and reconciliation, and also in the strikingly close key relationships: the first dumka in E minor (at times E major) concluding in the key of C-sharp minor, in which the second dumka remains throughout, while the third set is in A major.”
Also worth noting is that while the first three dumky are contrasted as mentioned above, a single mood dominates two of the next three: the march-like fourth is the work’s pensive slow movement, although here as in the subsequent dumky there is just enough contrast to remain true to the form; the energetic, contrapuntal fifth is its scherzo. The finale, alternating between C major and C minor, reverts to the even-handed alternation of the mournful and effervescent that characterizes the first three dumky.
– Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has been English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival since 1996.