Czech composer Antonin Dvorak [1841–1904] wrote fourteen string quartets. I discussed SQ No. 12, and SQs Nos. 13 and 14 in May and July 2016, respectively. This work, No. 10, is probably the last of his quartets that I will be reviewing. I wanted to have a chance to share some thoughts on his style.
String Quartet No. 10 is in four movements. It opens with a strong cello part leading to a charming melody. A quick key change brings about a rhythmic passage and the violins dance with their melodies, then an exciting new melody develops. This is typical Dvorak, folk-like melodies with his splendid, distinctive, accompanying harmonic lines. The music rambles through the harmonies at will, sometimes with rhythmic changes. Then there is a recapitulation with the opening cello pattern returning. The opening melodies are restated and redeveloped. Again a key change brings variations to the piece and a fresh feeling is introduced, with new melodies and harmonic backgrounds. The violins sweep in a bird-like fashion and propel the piece forward. After a time, earlier melodies are revisited, all with the composer’s characteristic folksy harmony. There is a long passage that darts here and there, all the time moving forward. This is brilliant writing. The composer has several melodic sections to work with and is able to sustain interest for some time. The initial theme returns to take us to the end of the movement, with a high violin melody and a gentle chord.
The next movement opens with a delicate melody over strummed cello chords; I think this melody is one of Dvorak’s finest. This melody is first developed, and then restated. Another gorgeous melody arises out of the first, as the violin accelerates for a brief moment. A recapitulation ensues and then we have a splendid passage in tempo; the violins are so playful. There is plenty of melodic development here, along with many tempo changes. The slow opening is hinted at, and then reharmonised. A light, airy passage concludes the movement.
The third movement is again slow, opening with a subdued ensemble. The music is simply longing and a violin melody is answered by the ensemble twice, before moving on into a swirling section where the call and response resumes. A high solo melody transforms into a rich ensemble sound, as descending chords bring a new melody to light. There is a certain majesty as the violins probe new feelings. A long section takes shape at a moderate tempo; there is still a lingering poignancy with the cello prominent. The violins carry the music forward now and it ends on a sustained chord.
A rapid violin opens the final movement and the mood is sustained for some time. Brief, slow interludes are swept aside several times as the violin constantly returns. These contrasting sections go on for some time until the quick tempo eventually abates and a new theme is introduced. A fine harmonised line for the two violins is very Dvorakian. There is now a final energised section and a violin states the melody in three separate tempos, the last of which is at breakneck pace and we are left with a flourish to end.
I believe this work, Op. 51, marks the beginning of the mature stage of Dvorak’s string quartet development. You can hear in this and the later works, the elements of the composer’s style. These include: modal scales; folk-like chords, melodies and rhythms; the highly personal nature of his harmonised melodic lines; the wonderful use of trills as an effect; and his unusually prominent use of the cello as a melodic device. I’ve always considered Dvorak as one of the most influential composers in the first half of the twentieth century; even Schoenberg drew from Dvorak in his 1896 quartet. In particular, his influence permeates through the European string quartet repertoire, at least until 1950 when the whole genre started to diffuse into many different, sometimes highly personal styles.
As to availability, there are 160+ versions on Amazon US and UK! I suggest buying a pairing with one of the later quartets, especially Nos. 12, 13 or 14. There is also a terrific Dvorak: The Essential String Quartets by the Panocha quartet which contains the composer’s last five quartets, SQs Nos. 10-14, all fine works. It is a 3-CD set at a very reasonable price.
Listenability: Classic Dvorak, with all his bells and whistles.