Moravian Duets, Op. 20, B50
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
březen (?) 1875; č. 4: 3. července 1876
Premiere - date and place
private performance: March/April 1875, Prague
Private performance: Marie Neffova (?), Jan Neff (?), Antonin Dvorak (?)
Simrock, 1879, Berlin
Parts / movements
1. Destined (Promeny)
2. The Parting (Rozlouceni)
3. The Silken Band (Chudoba)
4. The Last Wish (Vure suhaj, vure)
approx. 13 min.
Dvorak began writing Moravian Duets at the request of Prague wholesale merchant, patriot and patron Jan Neff, who engaged him as a piano teacher for his family from 1873 (or 1875). Neff and his wife Marie were great music enthusiasts and regularly organised small concerts at home, where they sang songs and duets. The children’s governess, Marie Blazkova, would often join them, and Dvorak would attend these soirees as accompanist on the piano. Neff proposed that Dvorak might like to arrange certain Moravian folk songs from the famous collection by Frantisek Susil, Moravian Folk Songs with Melodies Included in the Texts, as duets with piano. Dvorak initially agreed to this, but then decided that, instead of arranging the existing melodies, he would use only the texts, for which he would write completely new musical settings.
The collection of Moravian Duets appeared gradually, over a period of approximately two and a half years. Dvorak initially (probably in March 1875) wrote three duets for soprano and tenor attributed the opus number 20: “Destined”, “The Parting” and “The Silken Band”. He wrote another five duets in May of the following year (marked in the manuscript as Series II, Op. 29), this time for two female voices, namely for Marie Neffova and the governess Marie Blazkova: “The Fugitive”, “Fly Away, Little Bird”, “The Slighted Heart”, “Parting without Sorrow” and “The Pledge of Love”. After an interval of five weeks, he added another ten duets to this collection (marked in the manuscript as Series III, Op. 32) for soprano and alto: “Sad of Heart”, “Forsaken”, “The Modest Maid”, “The Ring”, “Omens”, “The Soldier’s Farewell”, “The Last Wish” (later included in Op. 20), “The Maid Imprisoned”, “Comfort” and “The Wild Rose”. In August of the following year (1877) Dvorak wrote four duets (Op. 38) for two unspecified voices: “Hoping in Vain”, “Greeting from Afar”, “The Crown” and “Grief”. Commonly included among these duets is another, independent duet, originating in 1881 but bearing no opus number, “There on Our Roof”, which brings the total number of Moravian Duets to twenty-three. Dvorak also arranged five of his duets for four unaccompanied female voices.
Moravian Duets collectively represent one of the most original expressions of Dvorak’s musical fantasy. They bring together all the unique aspects of the composer’s musical idiom: his choice of melodic intervals, succinct rhythms, unusual imitative treatment, polymelodic composition, and the art of contrast. Dvorak does not use the original folk tunes but applies his own melodic invention supported by the characteristic traits of Moravian folklore: modulation down a major second, or harmonic oscillation between two keys, among others. The vocal lines trace the original texts with maximum spontaneity and perfectly capture their natural simplicity. Using rare imagery, the composer allows both parts to mutually interact and imitate one another, at the same time organically weaving them into the piano part. In accordance with the folk model, the songs are generally strophic or tripartite, yet they still demonstrate considerable formal diversity.
Moravian Duets were a landmark in Dvorak’s career, since their success provided a springboard to international recognition. Jan Neff had thirteen of the duets selected from Opp. 29 and 32 published by Emanuel Stary in Prague at his own cost, and so Dvorak was able in the autumn of 1877 to submit them together with his third application for a state scholarship. One of the committee members who decided on the allocation of the grants was Johannes Brahms, who took a lively interest in the duets. On 12 December of that year he wrote to his publisher Fritz Simrock:
“Dear S., for a few years now I have enjoyed receiving works by Antonin Dvorak (pronounced Dworschak) from Prague, who has sent in applications for a state scholarship. This year he has submitted, among others, a volume of duets for two sopranos and piano which seem to me to be both attractive and practical. It appears that this volume was printed at his own cost. The title and, regrettably, also the text are only in Czech. I recommended that he send you the songs! If you play through them, you will be, as I was, entirely delighted with them and you will particularly appreciate their piquant charm. Dvorak writes all sorts of things, operas (Czech), symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. He is certainly a very talented individual! He is also poor! I ask you to consider this.”
Brahms’s recommendation did not go unheard. Simrock accepted the duets (Dvorak did not receive any fee) and he published them at the beginning of 1878 using the common designation “Klange aus Mahren”, Op. 32. The success of the work exceeded all expectations and Simrock immediately commissioned another opus from Dvorak, to be written in the spirit of Slav folk music – and this was his Slavonic Dances which served to establish Dvorak’s permanent position on the international music scene.