String Sextet in A-major, Op.48

Antonin Dvořák (b. 1841 - d. 1904)

Antonin Dvořák (b. 1841 - d. 1904)
Composition Year
Work Movements
1. Allegro moderato
2. Dumka. Poco allegretto
3. Furiant. Presto
4. Finale. Tema con variazioni. Allegretto grazioso, quasi andantino
Christopher Marwood [cello], Pieter Wiespelwey [cello], Dana Zemtsov [viola], Simone Gramaglia [viola], Tamsin Waley-Cohen [violin], Viviane Hagner [Violin]

Programme Note Writer:
© Francis Humphrys

Dvo?ák was catapulted to international fame as the result of a grant for impoverished composers set up by the Austrian government in Vienna - Czechoslovakia was at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The judging committee included both the renowned critic Eduard Hanslick and the even more famous Johannes Brahms. In each of the five successive years 1874-8 Dvo?ák won a prize and in 1877 Brahms took active steps to further Dvo?ák's career by recommending him to his publisher Simrock. Dvo?ák knew he was onto a good thing and bombarded the Highly revered Master with letters and dedications and scores. The results were spectacular for Simrock immediately undertook to publish Dvo?ák's compositions and Brahms arranged for the String Sextet to be premiered in Berlin.

The players were no less than the Joachim Quartet led by the famous violinist himself for whom Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto. The cellist in the Quartet was Robert Hausmann for whom, along with Joachim, Brahms wrote his Double Concerto. Dvo?ák was quite unused to being feted by such distinguished musicians and the delighted composer wrote to a friend: How they played all of it, with what understanding and élan, I cannot even tell you now as words are failing me. Joachim and his friends were equally excited for they could see at once the extent of Dvo?ák's genius and were delighted to be his standard bearer.

Dvo?ák must have known the two Brahms Sextets for the richly flowing and luscious melody of the Allegro moderato is redolent of the older composer's achievements with this ensemble. The two themes are similar in mood, full of the Czech composer's easy gift for songlike melody. It was this gift that Brahms so admired, for his own melodic inspiration was much harder won and he fairly gushed over the Sextet. It is endlessly beautiful. I always have the feeling that people don't admire this piece enough, this splendid invention, freshness and sonorous beauty. This first movement is in the customary sonata form with a dramatic and colourful development after the exposition and repeat. The coda explores the main theme once more and the ending has its surprises.

The Dumka has a fast-moving, cheerful main section enclosing slower more pensive music. The former clearly has folk origins with its simple little ditty that Dvo?ák cleverly exploits with the different instrumental combinations at his disposal. The slower section is equally folk-like but more sentimental than melancholic; it reappears a second time and the movement ends with a miniature coda. The furiant is an exuberant Bohemian folk-dance featuring alternate metres and this particular version would make one wish for a revival of the old custom of encoring individual movements. There is a slower central Trio, which is hardly less exciting though it begins innocently enough. Joachim must have loved this movement. The Finale is a theme with six variations. It begins life at the andantino end of allegretto and is replete with the rich middle voices of the violas. The variations are straightforward enough, the first two more lively, the third slower and chromatically richer, the fourth has a Mozartian colouring while the fifth exploits some vibrant pizzicatos. The last variation is huge fun as he decides to turn his six strings into an orchestra and gives them their head.

Francis Humphrys



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