performed by the Prager Streichquartett
Wow… this is a long quartet.
But maybe it shouldn’t be. The Prague String Quartet’s recording comes in at 48 minutes, which feels pretty hefty for a chamber work, but other recordings, like that from the Vlach Quartet, come in at way less than Prague’s 48 minutes, much closer to Wikipedia’s stated playing time of 33 minutes.
Wikipedia also tells us that the work was dedicated to one Josef Krejčí, director of the Prague Conservatory, and a former teacher of Dvorak (but not at that conservatory, apparently). The work was completed in 1862, but there seems to be no record of it having been performed before 1888, after Dvorak revised and shortened the now decades-old piece, when it was performed in Prague by members of the National Theatre.
There’s really not a ton online about this work, and when you go and listen to the late quartets, like the tenth, twelfth, and later, it’s not difficult to understand why. They’re masterpieces, but something to remember is that the success of a later work at the most implies nothing less than a relative inferiority, not a lack of inspiration or any real reason to ignore the earlier work. Sure, the earlier work may not be of the same caliber, or as mature or polished a piece, but that doesn’t have to be a criticism. Listening to Dvorak’s first quartet is good proof of that.
The Prager Quartett’s reading is indeed a long one, but through it all, there are things in this work that stand out, qualities about it that suggest that just maybe, it could be the gem in another, less famous composer’s output. The overall work bears an ambitious approach to the string quartet tradition, a Schubertian delicacy, a typical Dvorak-esque rustic quality, and maybe that something that Brahms would later see in the young composer’s work, a Romanticism that only became more refined as he grew.
The first movement is quite large, at nearly 18 minutes of playing time. It might be a little intimidating, but there are few things we can appreciate about the work. For one, it’s charming, nostalgic, and warm. It seems truly to come from a peaceful, simple time in life, and we can dispense with the structure and layout of the first movement, its sonata form and exposition, musical material, all of that. Whatever image you might have of a quaint country home a small drive outside of Prague, family life, walking to and from work or a pub, the scenes, the smells, the first movement strikes me as a rustic work that’s easy to get lost in. That being said, it’s not just a bunch of tunes strung together, it’s a large movement of a large work that shows a seriousness in its presentation. Wait for the pentatonic-sounding second theme of the opening to drive home the quaint, rustic quality of the movement.
The second movement, though, is far more melancholy. It begins instantly with an almost painful intensity. It’s marked adagio affettuoso ed appassionato. There’s a doleful melody that appears over the rest of the ensemble, but the work isn’t always entirely somber. There are some more hopeful moments, but what stands out here is the very effective writing that Dvorak presents for these four instruments, a masterful use of the quartet, and a sense of lyricism that he would develop as he matured. This might be one of the more convincing sections of the work.
The third movement, by far the shortest of the piece, is our scherzo and trio, maybe the most direct glimpse of what the composer would later accomplish. It seems it’s the only movement where he didn’t let any overambitious long-winded tendencies get the best of him. It’s compact, succinct, and effective, and as a result, more confident sounding. It’s the only one of the four that didn’t get any cuts in the revision. The trio is wonderful.
For all the praise I’ve given this quartet for how enjoyable it is to listen to, I will say that by the final movement, I am finding myself the slightest bit discouraged by the work’s length. There’s a lot of good content here, but it seems that despite the apparent attempt, mentioned here, to unify the work in quoting a passage of the first movement toward the end of finale (which is a wonderful moment), it’s quite a big work, and I feel that for all its niceties, there’s a good reason why it the composer shortened and compressed it down a little. That being said, I’m not sure why the Prague Quartet would decide to record the lengthier version, if that is in fact the reason their recording is 15 minutes longer than everyone else’s. The piece seems a bit wandery, and for all the adeptness in the writing, the overambitious length of the work seems to weaken its overall impact. Surprisingly, though, after something of such size, it closes quietly and without any fanfare.
There is an argument, I think, for leaving the work the way it is, especially after having gone back to revise it a decade later, and that has to do with the specific insights and artistic merit of early works. While they might not be the most memorable masterpieces in a composer’s career, they give us insight into an artist’s starting point. No matter how ugly you look in your childhood photos from decades ago with your frizzy hair and giant coke-bottle glasses and whatever terrible fashion trends, you still don’t throw those photos away. Same thing here, but this music is anything but ugly or terrible. It’s exciting to think, though, that what comes later is lightyears ahead of this, and we’ll visit one of those far more mature quartets tomorrow, so stay tuned.