Serenade for Strings in E Major, op. 22

            Dvořák is the preëminent Czech composer of the nineteenth century, and perhaps of all of his successors, as well.   This is no small achievement, considering the number of great musicians--Mozart, for example—who thought of Bohemia as the most musical country in Europe.  Even today, one hardly can get on a streetcar in Prague without stepping around a double bass. Americans today, if they think of Czech music at all, other than two popular works by Smetana, it is of the music of Dvořák. They know little of the other composers of the incredible musical wealth of Bohemia—including Fibich, Ostrčil, Janáček, Foerster, Hába, and Martinů—just to name a few.  Dvořák is merely “first among equals” in the history of Czech music, and many more of the compositions of “the conservatory of Europe” need to reach our own concert stages. Dvořák owed his initial recognition to Johannes Brahms, who encountered his music somewhat early in Dvořák’s career, and saw to it that he was enabled to spend time in Vienna for further study.  While Dvořák’s fundamental stylistic orientation is similar to the older composer in its classical restraint and dedication to traditional forms and procedures, his compositions are unmistakably Czech in myriad subtle ways.  Turns of harmony, melody, and rhythm firmly establish Dvořák’s ethnicity, even within a disciplined tradition of musical composition leading back to, say, Beethoven.  Like Brahms, Dvořák wrote stunningly well in the genres of string quartets, sonatas, and symphonies.  But unlike Brahms, he also wrote tone poems, and was an active and successful opera composer, although only his Rusalka is widely known in this country.  He was interested in almost every genre, and few of his contemporaries composed successfully in as many different ones as did Dvořák.

            He clearly thought of himself as a champion of Czech music, and he incorporated significant Czech musical, literary, and historical elements into his works.   His Slavonic Rhapsodies, tone poems, operas, and songs—the list goes on and on—all are heavily infused with Czech melodies, linguistic inflections and characteristic rhythms, and national legends and stories.   And it must be admitted that these essential elements of his artistic voice are near the core of his attractiveness to audiences worldwide—not just in his homeland. Yet, to focus inordinately on these elements would miss the mark in understanding the most important aspect of the nature of his music. As deeply rooted as he is in the Czech musical tradition, it would be a mistake to consign him primarily to the category of “nationalist” composers.  For Dvořák was a clear adherent of the artistic thinking of those composers of the nineteenth century who were firmly rooted in the tradition of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven (and later, Mendelssohn and Brahms) as a fundamental way of composing.  That is, they favored classical forms and designs, integrated development of musical ideas, and in general, a restrained and balanced expression that placed strong emphasis on music as an abstract art.  Generally speaking not for them were the “stories” and programs of folks like Liszt and Wagner, and their followers.   And in mastery of the resilience of this style, the symphonies of Dvořák--as well as those of Tchaikovsky--pretty much have come to dominate the symphonic music from those times that are favored today by concert audiences.

            But, early in his career, in 1875, at the age of thirty-three, he composed his Serenade for Strings, as untroubled and sunny a composition as one can imagine.  These were halcyon days for him: a happy marriage, a young son, and new prospects for recognition and financial security.  Ensemble serenades have their origin in pleasant, background music composed for outdoor soirees of wealthy patrons, consisting of multiple movements in contrasting moods and tempos.  Mozart’s are, of course, the acme of the genre, but other significant composers explored it, as well. Dvořák’s contribution is in five movements, simple in form, and carried by a skilled craftsmanship and a plethora of charming melodies.  Academic considerations of form, “first and second themes,” keys, development, and the like are unimportant, here.  All is transcended by the sheer beauty and good feeling engendered by this early masterpiece of the composer.   Even the moments of minor key areas—especially in the waltz of the second movement—are only lightly bittersweet and thus, quintessentially Bohemian.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan