Slavonic Dances, series I, Op. 46, B78
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
18 March - 7 May 1878
Premiere - date and place
28 March 1893, Rychnov nad Kneznou
Music Institute of M. Sallacova
Simrock, 1878, Berlin
Parts / movements
No. 1 - Presto, C major (furiant)
No. 2 - Allegretto scherzando, C minor (dumka)
No. 3 - Poco allegro, A flat major (polka)
No. 4 - Tempo di minuetto, F major (sousedska)
No. 5 - Allegro vivace, A major (skocna)
No. 6 - Allegretto scherzando, D major (sousedska)
No. 7 - Allegro assai, C minor (skocna)
No. 8 - Presto, G minor (furiant)
approx. 36 min.
When, encouraged by Brahms, major Berlin music publisher Simrock brought out Dvorak’s Moravian Duets in 1878, the works enjoyed a spectacular reception. The experienced businessman sensed significant commercial potential in this unknown Czech composer and requested that the latter write a cycle of four-hand piano pieces in a similar spirit; four-hand piano playing was a popular pastime in the salons of the day, and demand for new works was always guaranteed. Simrock asked for a series of Czech dances as a counterpart to Brahms’s now celebrated Hungarian Dances. Dvorak readily agreed to the commission and set to work right away.
Raised on Czech folk dance music, Dvorak was now literally in his element. Judging perhaps by the surviving sketch for the first series of dances, the entire initial sketch for the work possibly took him only a few hours; the whole composition kept him busy for three weeks. While he was occupied with this assignment, the composer was keen to exercise his sense for instrumentation and began writing its orchestral version at the same time.
While Dvorak had expressed his intention to use as his example Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, in the end, he decided not to. Brahms’s dances are essentially variations on existing folk tunes, but Dvorak penned a highly stylised series in the spirit of folk music, using his own themes. In the first series of Dances – with the exception of No. 2, which is a Ukrainian dumka (Slav folk ballad) – Dvorak sought inspiration exclusively from the Czech folk environment: furiant (fast, fiery dance), polka, sousedska (slow dance in 3/4 time) and skocna (fast dance). They are written largely in rondo or three-part ABA form. The themes are regularly periodic, lasting four or eight bars. Typical elements include the frequent alternation of major and minor keys, a marked poly-melodic character and unusual expressivity in the bass line. All parts of the series share remarkable invention in all aspects of their treatment.
The composer’s skills in the colourful development of musical ideas, their variation, ornamentation, mutual combination, harmonic progression and fragmentation, seem infinite. However, Dvorak employs all the tools for his composition work in such a matter-of-fact way that the impression is one of pure spontaneity. His instrumentation is a triumph in itself: all the merits of the piano version are further enhanced if we hear the Dances in their orchestral arrangement.
publication and promotion of the work
The piano version of the first series of Slavonic Dances had already been published by Simrock by August 1878; Dvorak did not receive payment on this occasion. He was given his fee only upon submission of the orchestral version, which came out later that same year. While the piano version for four hands was performed largely at private concerts in urban salons, the orchestral version of the Dances became established at Czech and European concert venues virtually overnight. During the very first year of their publication, the Dances were performed in Prague, Dresden, Hamburg, Nice, Berlin, London, Braunschweig, Plzen, Chemnitz, New York, Bonn, Boston, Graz, Cologne, Lucerne, Oldenburg and Tabor. Unlike today, in the vast majority of cases, the concert audience would only have heard a selection, not the entire series. The outstanding success of the Slavonic Dances contributed significantly to Dvorak’s prominence in Europe, and the Czech and world repertoire had now acquired a true treasure.
period press review
music critic Louis Ehlert in the Berlin daily Nationalzeitung:
“He who has followed the development of contemporary music over the last thirty years will, in the course of time, be filled with a strange feeling of nostalgia as he realises what a great, rare phenomenon pure, fresh talent is! I was sitting one day in very bad humour, buried in a heap of musical novelties, my eyes and spirit were struggling with the torpor to which we succumb so easily under the impression of vacant, indifferent, in short, worthless music, when suddenly two works by a composer totally unknown to me immediately engrossed my fullest attention: Slavonic Dances for four hands and Moravian Songs, thirteen duets for soprano and contralto by Antonin Dvorak. The composer is a Czech. He lives in Prague and, until a few years ago, he was a viola player in the opera there. He has published, as yet, very little, but is reputed to have a great quantity of compositions ready, including quartets and symphonies. And this is all I could find out about him. Let me summarise: here, at long last, is a one hundred per cent talent and, what’s more, a completely natural talent. I consider the Slavonic Dances to be a work which will make its triumphant way through the world just as Brahms’s Hungarian Dances did. But there is no question here of imitation; his dances are not in the least Brahmsian. Divine providence flows through this music; there is not a trace of artificiality or constraint. Everything is so effectively and colourfully arranged, it could be scored forthwith. As always among talents of a high order, humour has an important place in Dvorak’s music. He writes such cheerful and original basses that the heart of every musician must laugh within him. [...] I cannot help thinking how splendid it would be if a musician should once again appear among us about whom we should think as little of quarrelling as about the coming of spring.”