String Quartet No. 14 in A flat major, Op. 105, B193
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
26 March – 10 December 1895
Premiere - date and place
20 October 1896, Prague
Czech Quartet (Karel Hoffmann, Josef Suk, Oskar Nedbal, Hanuš Wihan)
Simrock, 1896, Berlin
A flat major
Parts / movements
1. Adagio ma non troppo. Allegro appassionato
2. Molto vivace
3. Lento e molto cantabile
4. Allegro non tanto
approx. 32 min.
Dvořák began writing his String Quartet in A flat major just before he was due to leave the United States for his homeland. He started on the sketch in New York at the end of March 1895 but, after completing 111 bars, he laid it aside and only returned to the sketch in December of that year, once back in Prague. In the meantime he wrote his String Quartet in G major (November–December 1895), hence the Quartet in A flat major has a lower opus number even though it was finished afterwards. Both works herald the last stage of the composer’s career and, at the same time, these are his last compositions in the domain of absolute music. The quartets appeared after an unusually long break of four months which Dvořák probably took in order to rest after his two-and-a-half years in America. The outcome of this lengthy period of inactivity was a surfeit of ideas thus, just two days after completing Quartet in G major, Dvořák reached once more for his New York sketch for the Quartet in A flat major, and finished it in under three weeks. Of his original sketch he used only the exposition in the first movement; from the development section onwards, he approached the work from an entirely different perspective.
Like the Quartet in G major from the same period, the Quartet in A flat major is also a masterpiece of its genre. In this, his last chamber work, Dvořák brought together all the experience he had acquired in the field of absolute music and transformed the traditional quartet form into something exceptional. In contrast to its predecessor, the Quartet in A flat major is conceived more polyphonically and the scherzo is now incorporated into the second movement. In this quartet as well, Dvořák works with a rich palette of expressional means and vibrant thematic material. The typical traits of the composer’s American period, traces of which are still evident in the previous work, are now absent. The overall tone of the work is positive and joyful, and faithfully reflects his spiritual disposition at the time.
The first movement begins with a slow introduction which, first in the cello, then gradually in the other instruments, anticipates the main theme. The quartet boasts a wealth of ideas, particularly in the treatment of the main theme, which undergoes various modifications even as it is first introduced in the exposition; its individual partial elements then co-create various contrasting musical figures. The second subject features a distinctive rhythm constructed around a succession of triplets. The skilfully conceived development section first incorporates individual motivic cells from the main subject, which are later “encroached upon” by the second subject. The music in the development gradually becomes more agitated, leading to the recapitulation which, surprisingly, does not begin in A flat major, but in G major. The recapitulation follows its traditional course, to be followed by a coda at the end which further intensifies the prevailing joyous mood of the movement.
The second movement is sometimes described as Dvořák’s most inspiring scherzo. It is written in traditional three-part A–B–A form, the whole built around a single thematic focal point, namely a highly rhythmical, syncopated idea exposed in the introduction to part A. As it develops, this theme acquires a more lyrical character in which we will hear echoes of the lullaby sung by Bohuš’s mother from the opera The Jacobin. The middle part of the movement, part B, in contrast, brings a serene, broadly arching melody. The third movement is a prime example of typical Dvořákian lyricism and fervour. With the exception of the middle section, with its somewhat more sombre tone, the movement represents a wonderful arc of tranquility and contentment, incorporating masterful use of contrapuntal approaches and an unusually rich sound. The fourth movement, a combination of the sonata principle and rondo, crowns the work in an expression of spontaneous joy. It is constructed from three themes and betrays a strong resonance of Czech folklore, in particular, the polka. Towards the end, Dvořák gradually enhances the joyous tone of the movement, and the work culminates in dazzling euphoric style.