About this Piece
In 1875, when the 34-year-old Dvořák composed his second String Quintet, he was becoming a prominent figure in Prague musical circles. He had spent his youth cultivating the “new” style of Liszt and Wagner in the face of opposition from conservatives in the musical establishment, and then rejecting that style himself and developing the quintessentially Bohemian voice for which he would become known.
Embracing Bohemian nationalism would ordinarily have meant that he was abandoning prospects of becoming prominent internationally in favor of becoming a local favorite son, but it turned out to be the key to widespread fame. Dvořák’s music won him Austrian state artist stipends in 1874 and 1875, but more important than the stipends themselves was that it attracted the attention of Brahms, who was on the selection jury. Though Brahms was only eight years older than Dvořák, he had been famous for two decades and had great influence, which he used to push Dvořák’s career, getting him a publishing contract with the prestigious Simrock firm.
The Quintet in G major that Dvořák completed in 1875, and called Op. 18, was composed for a chamber music competition sponsored by a Prague organization called the Artistic Circle. It won the prize and lavish praise from the jury for its “distinction of theme, technical skill in polyphonic composition, and mastery of form,” and “knowledge of the instruments.” It consisted of five movements: the four we hear tonight plus an andante religioso that had been adapted from a string quartet and would later become the Nocturne for Strings, Op. 40. Simrock published the four-movement work, now considered the definitive version, as Op. 77 in 1888. (Simrock often published older Dvořák works with deceptively high opus numbers, which greatly annoyed Dvořák, who did not want the public mistaking his youthful works for mature ones.)
The addition of the double bass to the standard quartet adds sonority and a sense of space, which greatly contributes to the open-air quality of the work, particularly in the first movement.
Dvořák, who had a Schubertian gift for melody and was often profligate with his themes, here makes less do more in the outer movements. Small motifs are combined into long sequences, repeated while the harmony changes around them, or pitted against one another in counterpoint. The Scherzo and the Finale actually begin with (and are built to a great extent from) the same five notes, though the effect is drastically different because both meter and key are different. Even in the poco andante, where Dvořák the magical melodist creates a movement of sweet warmth, a few phrases do most of the work.
—Excerpted from program notes by Howard Posner