String Quartet No. 11 in C major, Op. 61, B121
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
completed 10 November 1881
Premiere - date and place
2 November 1882, Berlin
Joachim Quartet (Joseph Joachim, Heinrich de Ahna, Emanuel Wirth, Hugo Dechert)
Simrock, 1882, Berlin
Parts / movements
2. Poco adagio e molto cantabile
3. Scherzo. Allegro vivo
4. Finale. Vivace
approx. 38 min.
At almost forty years of age, Dvořák was now an internationally recognised composer to the extent that he was literally being showered with commissions for new works, not only from publishers, but also from performers themselves. And so it was that, within two years of fulfilling his obligations towards the Florentine Quartet, for whom he wrote String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, he was already having to focus on a new composition in the quartet genre, on this occasion for the chamber ensemble led by court Kapellmeister Joseph Hellmesberger. Dvořák wanted to get down to work straight away, but he was still working on a lengthy opus, the opera Dimitrij. He thus divided his tasks in such a way that his mornings were devoted to the opera, and the afternoons to the new quartet. Dvořák began by writing the first movement in F major, but he wasn’t satisfied with the result. So he laid it to one side and began writing a completely new piece, this time in C major, which he worked on in October and November 1881. The premiere was planned for December of that year but, due to a fire at the Vienna Ringtheater, it never took place. The first documented performance was not held until almost a year later, on 2 November 1882, premiered in Berlin by the Joachim Quartet.
The music in this work differs fundamentally from Dvořák’s previous string quartet with its subtitle “Slavonic”. In his new quartet the composer did not use a single melody that might have been described as “Slavonic”; for his inspiration he looked to the likes of Beethoven and Schubert. With its absence of Slavic undertones, the Quartet in C major is fairly atypical for Dvořák. Nevertheless, it is a testimony of the next stage in his development and is undeniably one of Dvořák’s finest chamber pieces. The quartet betrays a Classical sense of equilibrium and great intellectual depth, clearly profiled thematic material and a high level of formal compactness in all four movements. The first movement in sonata form is surprising for its resourceful development of the main subject, the latter’s various transformations, and the remarkable harmonies overall. The second movement, with its dialogic development of the chief motif and the impulsively chromatic passages, is truly a gem among Dvořák’s adagios. The Beethoven model is most tangible in the third, scherzo movement, particularly in the brusque rhythms of its main section. The work culminates in the fourth movement, whose sense of boisterous joy appears to subside before the close, only to end brazenly in a short, rousing coda.