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Serenade for strings

composer

 
The composer who brought Czech musical style to fruition, Antonín Dvořák was born near Prague, in Nelahozeves. He evaded entering the family business; his father was a butcher, though fortuitously an excellent folk musician as well. At home in childhood, Dvořák absorbed much of the musical language that influenced his life and fortunes thereafter.

For 11 years the young Dvořák, an excellent all-round musician, played the viola in Prague’s Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra under the direction of Smetana, another of his main influences; he supplemented his income by teaching piano. In the meantime he fell in love with one of his pupils, Josefina Čermáková—but it was her sister, Anna, who ultimately became his wife and bore him nine children.

Sending 15 substantial compositions as application for an Austrian State Stipendium for impecunious young artists in 1875, he was described as 'Anton DWORAK of Prague, 33 years old, music teacher, completely without means'. The young family was underway by this time, too.

The judges, fortunately, were the conductor Johann Herbeck, the critic Eduard Hanslick, and Johannes Brahms, who awarded him 400 gulden. Brahms soon befriended him and introduced him to the publisher Simrock, who commissioned his first set of Slavonic Dances. Brahms’s lyrical style and rich yet measured textures found their natural heir in Dvořák; he also much admired Tchaikovsky, composer of one of the most famous Serenades for strings of them all. Having won his stipend, Dvořák redoubled his efforts and in that same year, 1875, he finished three chamber pieces, a song cycle, his fifth symphony, and the Serenade for strings.

The latter’s five movements are shot through with Dvořák’s typical proximity of happiness and sorrow, embodied in long-spun melodies, malleable harmonies, lilting folkdance rhythms and a certain languid beauty of atmosphere. Instead of opening with a lively allegro, the first movement is gently expansive and tranquil. The Tempo di Valse, with its hemiola rhythms, is closer to a wistful Czech folk-dance than any high-society ballroom numbers; the Scherzo is light and bustling before the Larghetto delves into a heartfelt melody filled with longing. The inventive finale, opening in the minor, fizzes along in high spirits, incorporating an irresistible Slavonic dance-like second theme and also bringing in reminiscences of the Larghetto and, just before the final coda, the whole work’s opening melody.

Of the 1876 Prague premiere, one critic wrote: 'Antonín Dvořák gave us a pleasant surprise with his serenade for string orchestra, showing decisive progress in the evolution of his artistic development towards greater stability and independence'. The Vienna Philharmonic had turned the work down. The loss was theirs.

from notes by Jessica Duchen © 2020

Recordings

Vaughan Williams, Suk & Dvořák: Tallis Fantasia & String Serenades
Studio Master: SIGCD638Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Menuetto: Allegro con moto
Movement 3: Scherzo: Vivace
Movement 4: Larghetto
Movement 5: Finale: Allegro vivace

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