EXPLORING MUSIC

A Mixed Bag

Author

David M. Greene

Publication

MHS Review 216 Vol. 1, No. XVII1 January30, 1978

Listen

Some time ago in writing about Dussek, I noted that he was a Bohemian, except that there was no such country. For this I was taken to task by a couple of readers who argued that the Kingdom of Bohemia survived from the Middle Ages to the end of World War I. I am at times all too fallible, but here I refuse to back down. The Bohemian throne was wangled out of Czech control by Ferdinand I of Austria in 1526. He forced the Bohemian diet to recognize his "hereditary right" to it twenty years later, and for the next 370 years it was out of Habsburg hands only in 1619-20 during the brief reign of Frederick V, "the Winter King." The Austrian return stamped out freedoms of religion, and politics, made the German language the official language, and reduced the Czechs to an illiterate and oppressed peasant minority. Over the next two hundred years, the Austrians gradually restored certain rights and privileges under pressure, but Bohemia in the nineteenth century was de facto about as much an independent entity as are the Republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia today.

 

The Slovaks and the Moravians seem to have been more inclined toward adapting to Austrian rule, but the Czechs vigorously pursued their advantage, profiting from the Revolution of 1848, and even more from the weakening of Austrian power by the Italian war of 1859. With the screws loosened on culture, education, and language there was a great upheaval of nationalist sentiment, which was nowhere more evident than in the creation of a Czech art-music, primarily at the hands of Smetana and Dvorak, that took its cue and its spirit from the songs and dances of the peasantry, wherein resided all that was left of ancient and proud Bohemia.

 

I've said a good deal about Dvorak in these columns before, so, if you don't mind, I'll get right along to the piano trios. The Schwann catalog lists "Trios (piano) (5)" but lists recordings of only the four presented here. Nor can I find any listing of a fifth in several works on Dvorak. Does anyone know if there's some recently discovered juvenile work? Or has Schwann mistakenly totaled in the string trio?

 

Never mind: we'll stick with the four. As Dvorakian statements, they are a mixed bag, though any one of them runs rings around a lot of the second-rank Romantic chamber music that keeps being rediscovered. Two are relatively early works (mid-1870s), one is middle-period (1833), and one comes from Dvorak's full mellow maturity (1891). The second and third trios followed hard upon two personal tragedies--the deaths of a small daughter and his mother--but the music hardly conveys this fact. There is, to be sure, the Dvorakovian interplay of light and shadow, the outpouring of lithe melody, and the dance rhythms of his people--a polka in No. 1, for example, a furiant in No. 3, and of course the dumkas of No. 4. Tragedy was not really Dvorak's musical hallmark, for that is, rather, a profound and inimitable nostalgia, a longing for "old, forgotten, far-off things,'' that I find deeply moving. One encounters it everywhere in his music, but in the later works, and especially in the chamber music, it is expressed, in my opinion, in melody equalled only by the Schubert of that final incredible year.

 

Re-listening to the four trios, I found no surprises in the first three. Very pleasant music, sometimes overextended (Brahms without the Brahmsian control), with moments of great beauty, and occasional struggles with the material. But when I came to the last, the "Dumka" trio, with its odd succession of six slow-and-fast dances, I had to drop everything· and listen. This is a work that is, for me, both endearing and ravishing, and I defy any reasonably sensitive person to listen to the second movement without a lump in his throat.

 

A Mixed Bag

Author

David M. Greene

Publication

MHS Review 216 Vol. 1, No. XVII1 January30, 1978

Listen

Some time ago in writing about Dussek, I noted that he was a Bohemian, except that there was no such country. For this I was taken to task by a couple of readers who argued that the Kingdom of Bohemia survived from the Middle Ages to the end of World War I. I am at times all too fallible, but here I refuse to back down. The Bohemian throne was wangled out of Czech control by Ferdinand I of Austria in 1526. He forced the Bohemian diet to recognize his "hereditary right" to it twenty years later, and for the next 370 years it was out of Habsburg hands only in 1619-20 during the brief reign of Frederick V, "the Winter King." The Austrian return stamped out freedoms of religion, and politics, made the German language the official language, and reduced the Czechs to an illiterate and oppressed peasant minority. Over the next two hundred years, the Austrians gradually restored certain rights and privileges under pressure, but Bohemia in the nineteenth century was de facto about as much an independent entity as are the Republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia today.

 

The Slovaks and the Moravians seem to have been more inclined toward adapting to Austrian rule, but the Czechs vigorously pursued their advantage, profiting from the Revolution of 1848, and even more from the weakening of Austrian power by the Italian war of 1859. With the screws loosened on culture, education, and language there was a great upheaval of nationalist sentiment, which was nowhere more evident than in the creation of a Czech art-music, primarily at the hands of Smetana and Dvorak, that took its cue and its spirit from the songs and dances of the peasantry, wherein resided all that was left of ancient and proud Bohemia.

 

I've said a good deal about Dvorak in these columns before, so, if you don't mind, I'll get right along to the piano trios. The Schwann catalog lists "Trios (piano) (5)" but lists recordings of only the four presented here. Nor can I find any listing of a fifth in several works on Dvorak. Does anyone know if there's some recently discovered juvenile work? Or has Schwann mistakenly totaled in the string trio?

 

Never mind: we'll stick with the four. As Dvorakian statements, they are a mixed bag, though any one of them runs rings around a lot of the second-rank Romantic chamber music that keeps being rediscovered. Two are relatively early works (mid-1870s), one is middle-period (1833), and one comes from Dvorak's full mellow maturity (1891). The second and third trios followed hard upon two personal tragedies--the deaths of a small daughter and his mother--but the music hardly conveys this fact. There is, to be sure, the Dvorakovian interplay of light and shadow, the outpouring of lithe melody, and the dance rhythms of his people--a polka in No. 1, for example, a furiant in No. 3, and of course the dumkas of No. 4. Tragedy was not really Dvorak's musical hallmark, for that is, rather, a profound and inimitable nostalgia, a longing for "old, forgotten, far-off things,'' that I find deeply moving. One encounters it everywhere in his music, but in the later works, and especially in the chamber music, it is expressed, in my opinion, in melody equalled only by the Schubert of that final incredible year.

 

Re-listening to the four trios, I found no surprises in the first three. Very pleasant music, sometimes overextended (Brahms without the Brahmsian control), with moments of great beauty, and occasional struggles with the material. But when I came to the last, the "Dumka" trio, with its odd succession of six slow-and-fast dances, I had to drop everything· and listen. This is a work that is, for me, both endearing and ravishing, and I defy any reasonably sensitive person to listen to the second movement without a lump in his throat.

 

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