Despite his huge international status
as a composer, Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)
- “Old Borax”, as he was dubbed by James Huneker, a music critic and one
of Dvorák's colleagues during his stay in the U.S.A. - always remained
simple and firmly connected to his humble country upbringing and native
Bohemian soil. A one-time butcher’s apprentice, avid train spotter
and steamship afficionado, his priorities in life are summed up by the
story of his election to the Austrian Senate in 1901: on attending
the opening day of the session, he gleefully pocketed the supply of pencils
provided, which he declared to be perfect for composing music, and never
entered the Senate House again.
Dvorák’s early years as a musician
and composer were not economically easy - among the jobs he took to make
ends meet was playing viola for the inmates of an insane asylum (a service
also performed by Edward Elgar) - but by 1878 his fortunes had improved,
with growing international recognition, the support of Johannes Brahms
and the publication of some of his works. Along with the three Slavonic
Rhapsodies and first series of Slavonic Dances, the Serenade
Op. 44 dates from that happy year.
The instrumentation of two oboes, two
clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, cello, bass and optional contrabassoon
is clearly modelled, albeit loosely, on that of Mozart’s Grand Partita,
though Dvorák at this point had yet to revive the previously long-dormant
basset horn (that had to wait until his Czech Suite of a few years
later, celebrating the instrument’s particular historical affinity with
Bohemia). The inclusion of the cello, Dvorák’s favourite instrument
(as evidenced by his two cello concerti, one of which remains unperformed),
in what is mostly a wind ensemble, is an unabashedly Romantic quirk.
The Grand Partita also evidently inspired the form of the Serenade, though
in a more concentrated package: a march-like first movement, a “minuet”
(here actually a combination of two Czech dances, a sousedská
and a furiant), a slow movement with a sublime, languid melody over
an insistent rhythmic pulse, and a triumphant ending. The sprit is
lyrical, good humoured and very much grounded in folk music tradition;
in concept the work is akin to Brahms’ Serenade in D of 1858, with
which Dvorák was no doubt familiar (and which listeners will remember
the Riverdale Ensemble performing last season, in its original scoring
for chamber ensemble).
Though he was only 13 years younger
than Dvorák, the music of Leos Janácek
(1854-1928) gives the impression of being several generations more recent.
In 1924 Janácek turned 70, and could look back on a long career
as a teacher and composer, primarily of vocally oriented music (songs,
choral works and latterly operas), which had been spent almost entirely
in his native Moravia and outside the international spotlight. It
was only in the 1920s that he finally achieved recognition as a Czech composer
worthy of comparison with Smetana and Dvorák, and as one of the
20th century’s most original and accessible opera composers. It was
also only at this stage in his career that, stimulated in part by his first
visits to international chamber music festivals, he turned his hand in
earnest to music for smaller ensembles.
The suite Mládí
(“Youth”), for wind quintet plus bass clarinet, owes its genesis to two
factors: a request - which he fulfilled reluctantly, not feeling
particularly old! - from a biographer to supply information about his life,
which led to reminiscences of childhood; and hearing performances by an
accomplished Parisian wind quintet, whose tonal textures he found intriguing.
Imbued with a wistful and whimsical spirit, its four movements are all
more or less programmatic. The first is a depiction of his days in
elementary school in his hometown of Hukvaldy, and features a universal,
decending-third “nyah-nyah” schoolyard motif. The second recalls
his subsequent time as a choirboy in the Monastery in Brno, with a plainchant-like
tune interspersed with sighs and agitated episodes reflecting his
sadness and anguish at being parted from his mother (being from a large,
poor family, Leos was sent to live away from home for economic reasons).
The third, a recasting of his earlier March of the Blue Boys, portrays
the military cadets at the Monastery, their naïveté made somewhat
eerie by the ominous presence of occupying Prussian soldiers. The
fourth is a general statement of vigorous optimism on embarking on the
adventure of life.
Janácek’s late music, though
rooted in the 19th century in tonal and harmonic terms, displays certain
traits that give it a highly distinctive character. Its structure
tends to be based on short episodes with sudden transitions, rather than
on broader traditional forms, with the frequent appearance of unexpected
interruptions and interjections. In addition, he made use of
“speech-melody”: the derivation of melodic contours and rhythmic
motifs from speech patterns, yielding passages which, while irregular and
unconventional, are still completely natural to the ear.
The premiere performance of Mládí
in 1924 was marred by mechanical misadventure: a spring broke on
the clarinet, rendering it unplayable, so the clarinettist mimed the entire
piece. Though the audience thoroughly enjoyed the results, Janácek
felt compelled to stand up and voice a disclaimer. We fervently hope
that history will not be repeated this evening.
Unlike most of the composers whose works
the Riverdale Ensemble performs, Zoltán Kodály
could not be called neglected; the particular work we are presenting, though,
probably could be.
Considering the lavish total of his
compositions, Kodály wrote relatively little instrumental chamber
music. Most of it is for string instruments, with or without piano;
the culmination of this part of his output came with the monumental Duo
for violin and cello (1914) and Sonata for cello solo (1915). The
for string trio (not to be confused with the similarly titled movement
from the Háry János Suite), though from only a decade
earlier (1905), is however a lifetime away in terms of the composer’s development.
It was written immediately after Kodály graduated from the Budapest
Academy of Music with degrees in music and education, and just before he
embarked on his first of many tours to collect the folksongs of Hungary
and elsewhere. His mature musical language had thus not yet developed;
the Intermezzo sounds a bit like Dvorák with a slight Hungarian
Like his rather better-known compatriot
Béla Bartók, Ernö Dohnányí
was born in the then-Hungarian city of Pozsony (now Bratislava in Slovakia).
Following his early years as a child prodigy pianist, he made the unusual
decision to undertake his further education at the Academy of Music in
Budapest, in preference to Vienna; in this he was followed by Bartók,
Kodály and others, and hence became one of the principal shapers
of formal music in modern Hungary. Several years of concert tours
established his reputation as the premier Hungarian pianist and composer
since Liszt. In 1915 he settled in Budapest and became entrenched
as the godfather of the musical establishment there, as director of the
Academy (until his ouster for political reasons) and as conductor of the
Budapest Philharmonic. It was said that no piece of orchestral music
was performed in Budapest in the 1920s and 30s without his approval.
Dohnányí’s choice to remain
in Hungary during the Second World War, his coexistence (albeit uneasy)
with the Fascist authorities, his decision to flee to Vienna near the end
of the war, and his stint teaching in Argentina in the late 1940s, all
contributed to his later life being dogged by persistent rumours - in all
likelihood unjust - of pro-Nazi sympathies. Eventually Dohnányí
ended up as composer-in-residence at Florida State University; one of his
tasks there, which he reportedly found completely baffling, was to write
a new fight song for the university football team. He died with his
boots on, while recording in New York.
Dohnányí’s music manages
to remain firmly in the late 19th century in its materials while being
uniquely characteristic in style. It has been described as “highly
lyrical and vivacious music, often tinged with a rare sense of humour”,
displaying “an unerring mastery of form and instrumental fluency, and a
rich but utterly natural sense of harmony which enabled him to make unbridled
chromatic extensions without ever losing the tonal centre. He succeeded
in blending the Brahmsian preservation of classical form with the Lisztian
concept of motivic strands binding together a large-scale work” (Bálint
Vázsonyi). The Sextet Op. 37 for
clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano, composed in 1935, demonstrates
these qualities to the fullest.
(We apologize that limitations of computer
keyboard character sets and browser compatibility make it impractical to
include all of the correct accent marks on Czech and Hungarian words!)