Nocturne in B, Op. 40
Length: c. 7 minutes
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 14, 2005, Iván Fischer conducting
Early in 1870 Dvorák made copies of portions of uncompleted or rejected works – some written as much as a decade earlier – for later use in compositions lacking whatever viable qualities these snippets possessed. Among these was one large-scale composition, a fascinating, if hectoring and overextended, 35-minute-long string quartet in the key of E minor, in a single movement with clear divisions of fast-slow-fast. Its slow portion, marked Andante religioso, is strikingly superior to the surrounding matter – beautiful in a faintly Wagnerian, certainly chromatic, way. Dvorák withheld the quartet from publication and it remained hidden from view until the early 1960s. The composer, however, never lost interest in that slow movement. In 1875, he condensed it and added a double-bass part, utilizing it in an abbreviated form as the first of two slow movements in his String Quintet in G major, Op. 77.
Dvorák subsequently determined that it didn’t fit with the Bohemian folksiness of his new style, and that, under any circumstances, it made the quintet too long. The movement was excised, but not forgotten. In 1883 he re-arranged it again, this time for string orchestra, reverting to the approximate length of the original quartet version – but adding the present, rapturous concluding measures (are you still with me?), and calling it Notturno. Dvorák conducted the premiere in London’s Crystal Palace on March 22, 1885, on a program that also introduced to the world his Symphony in D minor, Op. 70.
Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.