ANTONIN DVORAK – The Last Quartets – Nos 13 & 14

By far the most popular post on my blog is Antonin Dvorak’s Opus 96, SQ no. 12 in F Major, (reviewed May 2016). I thought I would continue on with his last two quartets. As noted previously, Czech composer Dvorak [1841–1904] wrote fourteen string quartets and very influential they were too! This post will cover Opus 106, SQ No. 13 in G Major and Opus 105, SQ No. 14 in A major.

Opus 106 is in four movements. It is a substantial work, clocking in at just over 31 minutes. The first movement opens with a typical Dvorakian flourish. A charming melody is introduced, and then another, followed by a return to the former.  There is a passage which settles into a plaintive melody, with harmonisation from the ensemble. After eight minutes, he is still working with melodies and motifs from the first two minutes. He hurries to the end with great vigour. The strength of the writing gives this movement an orchestral flavour.

Dvorak has such a distinctive style, it is no wonder how influential he has been. He seems to be able to craft a set of memorable melodies that can be stated, recrafted and restated, to sustain a lengthy section. I doubt that anyone could ever use pentatonic, folk-like melodies as well as Dvorak.

Movement two is marked adagio and so be it. The tempo is very slow and I believe I can hear evidence of the composer’s American sojourn here. The melodies are not so obvious here until about the three minute mark, when he moves into a pentatonic scale. A brief pause signals a new mood with solo cello prevailing. Major turns to minor and the movement edges forward. This is a deeply felt pastoral passage. The adagio tempo dominates the movement to the end.

The third movement begins with a pure folk-like melody. It settles into a gentle mood and then returns to an earlier theme. There is a sweeping sense of forward movement here. A false ending carries on into a slightly orchestral section. He forges his way to the conclusion with wonderful recapitulations of the many melodies he has introduced during the passage. This a very memorable movement.

The finale, marked andante opens with a quiet passage before morphing into a dance. There is some rephrasing of earlier melodies. Rhythmic sections constantly swap with slow passages. Melodies from earlier movements are frequently being revisited. I find this movement a little long but hey, it’s quite a ride.

Dvorak’s string quartet No. 14 in A major has the Opus No. 105 as it was started before Opus 106 but not finished until after. Similar to No. 13, it is long; over 30 minutes.

The first movement, marked adagio- allegro, has the stamp of Beethoven on its opening bars. There is a tremendous sense of longing in this section. This is a special place to be. It quickly moves into more positive territory with hectic rhythms before it returns to the opening melody, with variations. This is very powerful music. There is movement from major to minor keys which gives the piece further interest. Dvorak is a very conversational composer; his work is scattered with call and response. The energy finally dissipates and returns to a charming melody. After a time, it takes off again and the rhythm predominates. He then returns to an earlier melodic theme, with a different treatment. The conclusion is peaceful with the instruments conversing with each other.

Movement two opens with a typical Dvorak melody; such a recognisable style! These are prancing melodies. It then moves into a peaceful section which is developed using pentatonic scales. The key changes and the tempo returns. The composer has such a distinctive style it is difficult to imagine anyone else composing this music. A brief pause leads back into a positive melody. This is developed in various tempos, mostly of a strident nature. The conclusion is a measured variant of the original melody.

The third movement begins slowly with an alluring long melody that recalls SQ No. 12, the one written in America. These last three, twelve through fourteen, do in fact form a set. They share many properties. The melody lingers for a while until a rhythmic tempo is established, the cello carrying the other instruments. Then it is back to Czechoslovakia for a time with a simple, folk-like melody. Dvorak’s use of contrast between major and minor is enchanting. The conclusion is a variation on a previously used theme.

The final movement marked allegro starts in the cello, picking up on a melody used earlier. The composer then moves into a galloping style for a time. The melody returns, with a further major to minor change. Melodic development abounds. There are even two quotes from Beethoven’s Late Quartets. The cello leads the ensemble into a new melody. Finally the composer refers to his stately home ground, Czechoslovakia. Old material is constantly reworked and another brief Beethoven quote is heard. The end is frenetic and final.

Dvorak is always his own man. He doesn’t really fit the Late Romantic period in which he lived, but neither is he in any way modern. In my opinion, he is the most important string quartet composer of the 19th century after Beethoven.

Strangely, to find both String Quartets Nos. 13 and 14 on one disc is difficult, unless you have 1200 British pounds to spare. The same disc is also available used, for four British pounds. They can be obtained on separate discs, very easily. Please refer to the comments on versions in the previous works. There is also a terrific Dvorak: The Essential String Quartets by the Panocha Quartet on the Supraphon label, containing the composer’s last five quartets, Nos. 10-14, which are all fine works. It is a 3-CD set at a reasonable price.

Spotify has these two works, but you may have to specify the number 13 (or 14) to find them. Many of Dvorak’s quartets, including Nos. 13 & 14 are available on YouTube. You can also hear String Quartet No. 14 performed by the Stamitz Quartet and many other fine ensembles at earsense.

Listenability: Wonderful late works.


2 thoughts on “ANTONIN DVORAK – The Last Quartets – Nos 13 & 14”

  1. Eric, I like your inference that Dvorak is his own man. To me he sounds totally original and has much more influence than he is given credit for. JH

  2. I am listening to a new recording (new to me) of the complete string quartets of Dvorak, currently listening to the G major Op. 106 having just heard the F major Op. 96 “American” by the Stamitz Quartet (10 CD box set on Brilliant Classics). What wonderful creatures these are, just amazing pieces of music. The over riding sensation I get from these is that they exist in a world of their own, they don’t easily fit into any style or period but just seem to go on their own merry way, taking extreme pleasure from all the glorious melodies thrown up by Dvorak. If a melody can be a sensuous beast then these are some of the most sensuous moments in music. Don’t be fooled into thinking that string quartets are just some academic exercise in problem solving in music, these pieces are truly sensuous little beasts, playful, wilful and ultimately loving little rascals that will seduce you into believing that all we need is music to all get along.

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