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ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

String Quartet No. 13 in G major, op. 106

March 26, 2017: Jerusalem String Quartet

Dvořák endured three homesick years in New York as director of the National Conservatory of Music, with one blissful sojourn in his beloved Czechoslovakia for the summer of 1894. When he again returned home for the summer of 1895, nothing could persuade him to return to America, yet despite feeling “inexpressibly happy,” he was unable to compose anything new for several months. Then in a great rush in November and December he completed the G major Quartet, op. 106, followed by the A-flat major, op. 105. The Bohemian Quartet gave the first performance of Opus 106 in Prague on October 9, 1896.

The G major Quartet shows the composer embarking on a new path, and one wonders what would have followed these last two quartets had he lived beyond sixty-three years. Would he have developed a “late” style by continuing to work in short fragmented motives instead of extended melodic lines, and let his building of these motives increasingly dictate his forms? Would he have made even more bold harmonic experiments?

Here in one of Dvořák’s finest first movements, he creates a first theme area from brief gestures—repeated leaps, trills, oscillating descending triplets and alternating chords—and a second idea that one commentator aptly described as “a funny little unison bear-dance motive.” The second theme, though more lyrical, also consists of fragments, based on a repeating four-note motive. His harmonic explorations here and his transformation of materials as he develops and recapitulates show consummate skill.

The slow movement is one of chamber music’s most beautiful. Dvořák treats his poetic main theme—which shows a remnant of American influence in its pentatonic configuration—in a series of rich, free variations, alternating major and minor modes as he loved to do. The freedom of his conception, shaped more by pauses and pacing than by cadential divisions, lends an originality to his form and allows him to build to a impressive climax.

In the galloping scherzo, Dvořák delights in certain unexpected features, such as the crazy duet between viola and cello that serves as an accompaniment to a new statement of the main theme. Another surprise is the “false” trio, in which the lyrical pentatonic melody first presented by the viola shows a kinship with the second movement’s main theme. The “real” trio introduces a gently rocking pastoral theme, punctuated by trills and fleeting arpeggios.

The finale begins with a slow anticipation of its jolly, syncopated main theme. With great structural freedom, Dvořák strings together a series of themes that includes a more extended exploration of his slow introduction, which in turn brings a chain of developmental reminiscences from his first movement. It is fascinating to see Dvořák making further developments across movements, rather than including a development section proper. He rounds out the movement with a lusty recall of his exuberant main theme.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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