Chamber Music: Four Romantic Pieces (Antonin Dvorák)

(Born  September 8, 1841 in Nelahozeves; died May 11, 1904, in Prague)

Dvorák’s father, a village innkeeper and butcher who hoped his son would join his trade, would have been astonished that his son, in his maturity, became an internationally renowned composer and director of a music school in New York City. The young man began studying music when he took violin lessons from a local schoolteacher, and at sixteen left home to study in Prague.  Five years later he joined the orchestra of the National Theater, playing the viola (an instrument that in his time was designated the instrument of failed violinists).   Soon thereafter he began to test his creative powers with extended compositions in the classical forms.  Until he was more than thirty years old he was unknown as a composer outside of the little circle of musicians in Prague who were his friends.  Then in 1875, his talent came to the attention of Brahms, who helped launch him in his career by getting him a generous grant from the Austrian Imperial government in Vienna and recommending him to his publisher in Berlin.

Dvorák did not even own a piano when Brahms arranged for him to get a generous grant from the Austrian Minister of Culture, and the happy new freedom to concentrate on creative work that the money brought him resulted in the first fine works of his early maturity.  Chamber music had an important place in Dvorák’s life, and many of his earliest works were quartets and quintets, modeled after those of Beethoven and Schubert, that he played with his colleagues while developing his craft.

In January, 1887, Dvorák composed a string trio that was intended as a simple piece for his private amusement, a set of bagatelles to be played by a group including an unskilled amateur violinist.  In the course of his work, the trio somehow outgrew its limits, so he sat down and wrote another.  This piece he converted a few weeks later into the Four Romantic Pieces for violin and piano, each aptly described by the title it bears.  Each piece is a charming miniature and today often the pieces are not performed as a series but rather as single free-standing pieces: l. Cavatina, Allegro moderato;  2. Capriccio, Allegro maestoso;  3. Romance, Allegro appassionato; and 4. Elegy, Larghetto.

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