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These Bagatelles were composed in 12 days at the beginning of May 1878, which was in many ways Dvorák’s breakthrough year in terms of international success. On the strength of enthusiastic recommendation by Brahms, the German publisher Simrock had brought out Dvorák’s Moravian Duets early that year (in a German translation), and commissioned the first group of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. The sheet music market for amateur performance was then the equivalent of recordings for later generations of musicians – a source of popular recognition as well as income.
The Bagatelles were very much aimed at the home market. The scoring – two violins, cello, and harmonium or piano – is flexible, the main theme of the set (most clearly heard at the beginning of the first and third movements) is the opening of the folksong “Hrály dudy” (The bagpipes were playing), and only a few flights for the first violin and cello would challenge well-practiced amateurs.
But speed of composition and utterly pragmatic inspiration seldom led to anything mediocre from Dvorák, who could “pull melodies out of his sleeve,” as Simrock remarked. There is plenty of contrast – including a well-characterized, deliberately old-fashioned minuet and a lyrical slow movement written almost entirely as a close canon between first violin and cello – but the motto theme holds it together nicely as a well balanced whole, tuneful and surprisingly detailed in timbre, dynamics, and articulation.
The Terzetto, Op. 74, was also written quickly, in a week in January 1887. Dvorák heard the violinist Jan Pelikan (an old friend from their days together in the National Theater Orchestra) giving lessons to a neighboring student, and the composer decided to write a trio for them to play with him on viola. Dvorák got carried away by the project, and the resulting work proved too difficult for the student. (Dvorák then wrote a much simpler set of four Drobnosti (Miniatures) for the trio, and arranged those for violin and piano as Four Romantic Pieces. Simrock quickly published the Terzetto and the Four Romantic Pieces.)
“I am now writing some small bagatelles for two violins and viola – just imagine! This work gives me as much pleasure as if I were composing a great symphony,” the composer wrote to Simrock. The first three movements are all A-B-A song forms, and all contrast gentle lyricism with more agitated music. The expansive, chromatically adventuresome Introduction leads into the sweet Larghetto in E major. The Scherzo is an A-minor furiant, a Bohemian dance with characteristic cross rhythms; its Trio section is a sunnier variation in A major. The finale is a complex set of Beethovenian variations in C minor, before ending in a frenzied rush to C major.