Dvorak Piano Quintet No. 1 in A, op. 5, B. 28

performed by the Borodin Quartet with Sviatoslav Richter

My dear friend! Do you remember that quintet (A major) with piano which, thanks to your efforts, was performed in Prague for the first time, about 14 years ago? I cannot find the score; I only know that you had the quintet copied, so perhaps you still have it? If that is the case, I would be very grateful if I could borrow it, I would have it copied as well. These days, I like to take a look at some of my old sins every now and again, and it’s been such a long time since I last saw this one.

the composer, in a letter to music critic (and friend?) Ludevit Prochazka
as referenced in this brief but wonderful article

Not everything we do is or even needs to be perfect.

Many people may not have seen in the young Dvorak the kind of promise that would later prove him to be one of the greatest composers of the 19th century. In a time when the musical world, by and large, was focused on opera and symphonic poems (and concertos, probably), the young Dvorak wrote some symphonies and a number of chamber works, quintets, quartets, and a handful of overtures.

While this work bears the opus no. 5, it is in fact preceded by two symphonies, a string quintet, four string quartets, a few overtures, a clarinet quintet, and quite a bit more. I turn again to Hyperion’s wonderful program/liner notes for works, in this case written by Jan Smaczny. Of Dvorak’s early years, he says:

These were years of considerable poverty for Dvorák and he eked out a living by playing the viola in the Czech theatre in Prague and teaching music. The musical characteristics of this early phase were, to say the least, pioneering, and later in the 1860s he began writing some highly experimental string quartets…

It seems, though, that this ‘pioneering’ nature was falling on unsympathetic ears in Prague, as Smaczny states, so he worked to find some balance, apparently. As a result, the notes continue,

… most of Dvorák’s composing efforts were geared to smaller-scale works suitable for the salons of Prague, in particular that of Ludevit Procházka, an enthusiastic amateur pianist who took part in the performance of at least one movement from the composer’s first two piano trios (both now lost).

Today’s work comes from the same period. Dvorak had written it, handed it to Prochazka, apparently for potential printing or copying for performance, but later became dissatisfied with the work and destroyed his own copy. As we saw from the quote that began the article, he later regretted this, and wished to revisit the work, revising it for later performance or publication. Prochazka thankfully held onto the piece and we have a somewhat updated version of the work that survives to this day.

It’s in three movements, “Like Dvorak’s other cyclical works from the early 1870s,” says the article from what seems to be the composer’s official (society? historical?) website. It continues:

Apart from related formal issues, all his works from this period also share a similar mood and expression: Romantic pathos in the first movements, a more sombre tone for the second movements, and joyous final movements.

Smaczny says that “The quintet shows something of the discursiveness of the early string quartets,” but the ‘official’ Dvorak site says that “Unlike his previous chamber works, however, the thematic material in the piano quintet is more consolidated, the form is more transparent and more vibrant.”

I would agree with both of those statements, really. There’s not really a sense of urgency to the first movement until a bit later, and even then it only really has momentum or drive in some of the more climactic moments. That’s not necessarily a criticism. It is certainly pleasant, rich in expression, the sound of potential, the writing for each of the instruments, or rather for piano and for quartet, satisfying and Romantic. It’s undeniably an early work, but we can hear the more extravagant influences of the Romantic era, as well as the early, poetic sounds of someone like Schubert.

You’ll recall that Dvorak made large cuts to his first string quartet, which we discussed almost six months ago. Apparently (maybe?) that earlier unabridged version survives but not so with this work, so we’re only left with the apparently more succinct version, since Smaczny says the composer cut something like 150 bars from the work (perhaps in this movement alone; I’m not sure.) In any case, he also mentions that Dvorak’s piano writing, which I’ve already expressed is quite enjoyable, is even more impressive considering the composer didn’t even own a piano at this point, apparently. He probably didn’t have an iPad either.

The second subject is omitted from the recapitulation, perhaps part of those 150 bars that were excised from the work, but the closing doesn’t lack much as a result. The second movement is the longest of the work, and its opening seems somehow familiar, from something, I’m not sure what, but Smaczny mentions its “Beethovenian nobility.” The piano features as a solo instrument in the beginning, and the quartet ever so delicately enters to present what turns out to be a rather pained, poignant movement.

It doesn’t take any wild innovation or extravagant virtuosic writing to make for a delicate, moving piece of music, and while it may not stand out as one of the most memorable musical moments you’ve ever enjoyed, it gives us clarity and expressiveness that after a few (perhaps unmoved) listenings, one can’t help but find convincing.

As convincing goes, though, the star of this show is the final movement. It’s undoubtedly the most individual of the three, perhaps the most indicative of what the world would later hear from, and even come to identify with, the sound of the mature Dvorak. That one website (that I’ve already linked) says:

The piece is proof of the waning influence of the German Neo-Romantics on Dvorak’s work, and also a testimony of his great endeavour to formulate his own conception of musical expression, which is already apparent in the final movement.

The second movement closes quietly, with plucked strings, and the finale begins in a busied, even somewhat anxious tone, with lots of chatter, but the almost instant feel is suddenly one of folk music, a spiritedness that the previous movements lacked, especially with the writing for violin. This is the Dvorak you’re looking for.

I’m not saying it’s on par with his later work, or anything like that, but it is more memorable, and brings a greater mental smile to my mental face than anything that preceded it. It’s very much in the style of a scherzo, with that sort of spring in its step, and undoubtedly, he did go on to write greater things, but for those die-hard lovers of Dvorak’s work, like the second quintet or the quartets or anything else, you’ll likely find something to cherish, at the very least, some insight into where Dvorak started from and how he began.

So yes, we can be thankful that an associate of his had the work and kept it around. Perhaps even Prochazka had forgotten he had it lying around, but what I’d like to mention (and not really expound upon) is how much I admire Dvorak’s attitude toward this work, or his early stuff in general. In the quote that began this article, he mentioned his “old sins,” but how nice it is to be able to accept them, warm up to them and give them a quick polish with the experience and maturity he had gained, instead of being embarrassed about what might be perceived as humble beginnings.

I am pleased enough with that very idea to be excited about this work, regardless of the others that may surpass it in whatever way. The finale is of great enough excitement and optimism that no matter how discursive or immature it may be, the result after a listen is undeniably one of simple joy, and who could turn their nose up at that?

That’s a lot more about this work than I’d planned to write, and indeed I have not given it that many listens. We’ve really only touched on some of the composer’s earliest chamber works, aside from the ubiquitously famous American quartet, but I do fully intend to get around to the rest of his large body of chamber works, because, as we have seen, they’re not to be dismissed simply because of the genius of their later counterparts.

That’s all for now, but we’ll see more of Dvorak next week, so pelase stay tuned, and as always, thank you for listening.

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