Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, B155
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
18 August – 3 October 1887
Premiere - date and place
6 January 1888, Prague
Karel Ondříček, Jan Pelikán, Petr Mareš, Alois Neruda, Karel Kovařovic
Simrock, 1888, Berlin
Parts / movements
1. Allegro ma non tanto
2. Dumka. Andante con moto
3. Scherzo (Furiant)
4. Finale. Allegro
approx. 40 min.
composition history, premiere and subsequent performances
Fifteen years after his Piano Quintet Op. 5, Dvořák decided to write his second work for the same instrumental ensemble, in the same key. Yet this is where all similarities between the two works end. While the first of them was the product of a time when Dvořák was still trying to find himself as a composer, Op. 81 is a testimony of his supremacy in his chosen field. The main impetus for writing the work may have been the fact that, shortly before, Dvořák had been revising some of his juvenilia, including his first piano quintet from 1872, and he perhaps now decided to create some kind of more mature counterpart to it. The Piano Quintet No. 2 was first performed on 6 January 1888 at one of the concerts organised by the artists’ association Umělecká beseda at Prague’s Rudolfinum. The premiere of the work was extremely well received by the critics. Josef Bohuslav Foerster, for instance, described the new work in Národní listy as follows: “This is a work of rare value, innovative thematic material and imposing depth of treatment. One cannot show a preference for any movement, since the warm Allegro and poetic Dumka stand their ground as well as the spirited Furiant and the capricious, jocose Finale. The piece encapsulates what we have come to expect from Dvořák: a wonderful sound and numerous intriguing and original instrumental effects.” About one month after the premiere, Prague was visited by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Dvořák’s new quintet was included on the programme at one of the soirées organised in his honour. Tchaikovsky later noted in his diary: “They played quartets by Smetana and Kovařovic, and the quintet by Dvořák. I found the latter very amiable and I very much liked his quintet.” In the very first year of its premiere, the quintet was performed in Prague on several occasions and was also presented in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Hamburg and twice in London where, in subsequent years, it was to become one of Dvořák’s most frequently performed works. The piece was published by Simrock in the same year, bearing a dedication to university professor Bohdan Neureuther, a leading patron of young musicians in Prague.
Whether a question of the choice of thematic material, the superb instrumentation or the flawless structure of the individual movements, the quintet is, in all respects, an exemplary achievement of Dvořák’s proficiency as a mature composer. Here, he effectively incorporates nuances of Slavonic music, particularly in the melancholic dumka in the second movement and in the virtuoso stylisation of the furiant, a Czech folk dance, in the third movement. Even so, this is not a work that could be described as exclusively “Slav”. At the peak of his career, Dvořák skilfully combines folk (or “national”) elements with “Pan-European” principles, thus achieving his own distinctive, convincing synthesis. A major part of the quintet was written at Dvořák’s summer residence in Vysoká, and it seems as though the idyllic atmosphere of this environment was projected into the music itself: this is a serene work radiating with prevailing optimism which, in the final two movements, intensifies to an expression of spontaneous joy.
The first movement is written in sonata form with two principal themes. These are, however, subject to all manner of variations during the course of the exposition, creating an unusually colourful melodic fabric. The main subject is exposed in the cello against a uniform rhythmical accompaniment in the piano, and the second subject is entrusted to the viola. The sophisticated, intricate development section treats variants of both themes. The recapitulation is more or less regular and finishes off with a rousing coda. The second movement is one of Dvořák’s most enchanting dumkas. From a formal point of view, the movement is in rondo form with the scheme A–B–A–C–A–B–A, where A is the dumka theme itself in the melancholic key of F sharp minor; B is the somewhat more animated secondary theme; and C constitutes a contrasting section with a stirring rhythm, which gathers momentum as it heads towards an expression of pure ecstasy. The scherzo movement is marked “furiant”. While it does not involve the typical alternation of two-beat and three-beat rhythms, in its overall character, it comes close to emulating the style of this folk dance. The movement bears the traditional scherzo trademark form, A–B–A, with a brisk, rhythmical part A (whose main theme is somewhat reminiscent of the Allegro vivace from Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor for four-hand piano) and a melancholic, dream-like part B. The final movement sparkles with unusual melodic vitality and lively rhythms. It is written in sonata form with three themes; a striking fugato is constructed from the first of these during the development. The final coda is one of the most dazzling in Dvořák’s entire oeuvre.
period press review
The Athenaeum, 1 December 1888:
„A second hearing only serves to confirm the original impression that it is one of the finest, and at the same time of the most beautiful and attractive, of its composer’s chamber works. Its principal characteristic is the strong national colouring which pervades it throughout, though only in one movement does Dvorak permit this pronounced tendency to override in the smallest degree his musicianly feeling. It is difficult to regard the form of the Dumka, or elegy, as satisfactory. Two themes are presented several times, each with various modifications, but without any regular development. The movement, therefore, gives the impression of patchiness, despite the beauty of the melodies. The first and last sections are models of form as well as of originality, and the scherzo, or Furiant as the composer calls it, is simply irresistible in its surging energy and freshness.“
discovery of the sketch
In 2015 Dvořák's autograph continuous sketch for the quintet, which he had given to his Italian student Leone Sinigaglia, was found in Italy. Currently it is held privately by an unknown owner who purchased it in a public auction for 50,000 Euros.