Bohemian Piano Quintets

Sunday February 16, 2020 @ 3:30 PM

This concert presents two immense and magnificent piano quintets for strings and piano from the late 19th Century. Both works offer a nationalistic flavour and explore the wide spectrum of human emotions. The Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.12 by Vitezslav Novak is a stirring and majestic work and brings forward stylized Moravian folk song material. This work is paired with the Piano Quintet in A major, Op.81 by Antonin Dvorak. This masterful work includes attractive Bohemian folk elements and exhibits fulsome textures and intense lyricism.

A central aspect of the Romantic movement was Musical Nationalism, which was often at odds with the prevailing German tradition of the mid to late 19th century. Composers across Europe sought to incorporate their country’s folk elements into their music in assertion and celebration their own national heritage and identity in the midst of turbulent political times. Bedrich Smetana from mid-century is considered the father of Czech national music and Antonin Dvorak followed Smetana’s example by integrating folk elements into his music. In turn, Vitezslav Novak, who studied with Dvorak, embraced Czech nationalism and brought it into the twentieth century. Both Dvorak and Novak each wrote magnificent piano quintets -- that grand chamber music form of piano paired with string quartet -- and ushered into the world wonderful music infused with the spirit of the Czech people.

Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.12
by Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949)

  • Allegro molto moderato
  • Tema con variazioni: Andante
  • In the Slovak style: Allegro risoluto

Vitezslav Novak grew up in southern Bohemia and as a child studied piano and violin, much against his will. It wasn’t until he arrived in Prague in his late teens that his attitude changed. He went there ostensibly to study law, but also took some composition masterclasses at the Prague Conservatory with Antonin Dvorak: that was his turning point. He gave himself over to piano, composition and Czech nationalism, going so far as changing his given name of Viktor to the Czech version Vitezslav. His early works show a strong influence of Dvorak. He wrote symphonic poems and chamber music, becoming one of the most important Czech composers of the early twentieth century. His style was neo-romantic and he experimented with all the new and emerging tonalities as the new century unfolded.

In 1896, Novak took a formative trip to the Moravian region of the Czech Republic and bordering Slovakia. There he enthusiastically collected regional folk songs; these inspired him to write his virtuosic Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.12 the following year. The first theme of the first movement, Allegro molto moderato, is based on a folksong, “Hear the Earth Tremble and Moan.” Long notes in the strings hover above slowly moving piano chords. A dramatic and stirring second theme then propels the music onward. The second movement, Andante, presents a slow chorale-like setting of a fifteenth century Moravian love song, “O Elsa, lovely Elsa.” What follows is a set of variations that takes the melody through widely varying textures, tempi, styles, configurations and eventually gathers with great intensity before dying away. The main theme of the third movement, Allegro risoluto, is a paraphrase of a Moravian wedding song, dance-like and jubilant. It returns dressed in ever richer textures, culminating in a virtuosic conclusion.


Piano Quintet in A major, Op.81
by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

  • Allegro, ma non tanto
  • Dumka: Andante con moto
  • Scherzo-Furiant : Molto vivace
  • Finale : Allegro

By the 1880’s, Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak was well-established, expertly balancing Czech nationalistic writing with current international musical trends. By this time, he was a celebrity across Europe and writing his seventh and eighth symphonies and many chamber works. The most notable stylistic feature of his writing is undoubtedly his intense lyricism; he seemed to possess a never-ending flow of beautiful melodic ideas.

In 1887, Dvorak attempted to rewrite a piano quintet in A major he had written sometime earlier, but he became wholly dissatisfied, destroyed the manuscript and embarked on a completely new work. Between August and October of that year, he penned the Piano Quintet in A major, Op.81 while at his country retreat in Slovakia. Woven throughout the work are folk elements redolent of the Moravian and Bohemian areas of the Czech Republic. The piece was premiered to great acclaim on January 6, 1888 in Prague, and enthusiastically published by Simrock, as there was then a lucrative chamber music market. It has since gone on to become one of the most internationally successful chamber works of all time.

The first movement, Allegro, ma non tanto, opens with a slow, stately theme presented by the cello over a piano accompaniment. The music soon gains momentum and energy, driving to a livelier and busier second theme offered by the viola. Both themes are developed extensively throughout the movement with music that is vigorous, intense and passionate. The second movement, Dumka: Andante con moto, is based on a “Dumka” which means a slow song, a lament. Here he has written a rondo with a mournful and poignant Dumka theme, ever recurring more richly textured and interspersed with lighter dance-like episodes. The third movement, Scherzo-Furiant: Molto vivace, features a fast Bohemian folk dance, an ecstatic romp; it contrasts with a gentler central trio section that uses a derivative of the same theme. The Finale is light-hearted and spirited, with unstoppable energy. Only a short tranquillo section of calm offers a breath near the end, before the final immense swell accelerates towards the brilliant conclusion.

The music of the people is like a rare and lovely flower…
- Antonin Dvorak

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