In the 19th century, an age of widespread amateur performance, the face of composition changed dramatically: more and more pieces were being written not only with the concert hall, but also with the amateur’s drawing room, in mind. It was not a new tactic – Mozart, after all, wrote concerti for his students – but with the growth of commercial music publishing, a host of instruction books appeared and a new generation of amateur musicians demanded music to fit their newly developing skills. Antonín Dvorák was among the crop of composers who recognized this, and as a result tailored some of his catalog for amateur performance.
The composer’s Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, originally scored for piano duo, are among this body of works suitable for everyday performance. The set of eight folk dances was written in 1878 at the request of publisher Fritz Simrock. Simrock was Johannes Brahms’ publisher – Brahms and Dvorák became good friends early in the younger composer’s career – and he had nearly a year before helped launch a career for Dvorák by accepting the virtually unknown composer’s Moravian Duets. But it was the Slavonic Dances that introduced Dvorák to the European concert scene; after their 1878 Dresden premiere, renown for the composer increased dramatically. (It must be noted that Dvorák, still in relative obscurity, received just 300 marks from Simrock – less than $100 – for the work that exposed him to the public eye.)
Soon after completing the original piano duet, Dvorák arranged the dances for full orchestra (the form in which they were premiered in Dresden), resulting in a single work presented in two different color palettes. The piano version is simple enough for student performance, but shows a brilliance in condensing Dvorák’s varied coloristic and rhythmic skills into a more limited format. The orchestral version lacks such economy of scale, but makes up for it with a hefty dose of vibrant instrumentation and rhythmic verve.
Although labeled under the catch-all description of “Slavonic” dances, seven of the eight sketches are Bohemian in origin, with only the second dance being native to Serbia. (His sequel to this work, 1886’s Op. 72, rounded out the international balance with music from Poland, Slovakia, and the Ukraine.) The overall flavor is vigorous, witty, and highly rhythmic. While the majority of the pieces resemble, at least in overall structure, traditional dances of symphonic form, there are departures. The fourth dance, for example, is a strongly accented version of a minuet. Of course, Dvorák’s characteristic folk melodies and colorful harmonies can be heard throughout, making the work a lively, vigorous vignette of the composer’s style.
Jessica Schilling is a music and entertainment writer for the Denver Postand the Boulder Daily Camera.