String Quartet No. 5 in F minor, Op. 9, B37
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
September 1873 - 4 October 1873
Premiere - date and place
11 January 1930, Prague
Kramar Quartet (Jan Buchtele, Ferdinand Karhanek, J. Lupinek, Vaclav Kefurt)
Breitkopf & Härtel, 1929, Leipzig
Parts / movements
2. Andante con moto quasi allegretto
3. Tempo di valse
4. Finale. Allegro molto
approx. 30 min.
composition and performance history
The String Quartet in F minor was written for a semi-professional chamber ensemble grouped around the influential industrialist Josef Portheim; Dvorak also played the viola with them when the ensemble gave private concerts. Portheim himself was a fine cellist, and the quartet also featured excellent violinist and professor at the Prague Conservatoire, Antonin Bennewitz. Musical soirees were held in Portheim’s Baroque villa in Prague’s Smichov district (today the “Portheimka villa”). According to the testimony of music critic Vaclav Juda Novotny, the players were not taken with the piece, since it “lacked the style appropriate for chamber music”. The frustrated composer apparently tore out the dedication to Portheim from the title page and handed the score to Novotny, telling him that he never wanted to see it again. The manuscript was found in Novotny’s possession only after the composer’s death, in 1910, but it was many years before it came out in print. The piece was published by Breitkopf and Hartel in 1929; the quartet was performed publicly for the first time a year later. The autograph of the score is now missing.
This work, usually classified among Dvorak’s early quartets, is one of his most sombre and already contains the promise of his future mastery. Despite its extensive first movement, the quartet overall betrays an endeavour to condense the motivic treatment and introduce greater clarity to the thematic material. The first movement is written more or less in traditional sonata form with three subjects; it has an unusually lengthy development section, and the coda leads irregularly into the key of F major. The second movement is typical for its highly intimate atmosphere and moderate use of expressional devices. From a formal point of view, the movement is conceived as a rondo with the scheme A-B-A-C-A-B-A. Dvorak later used it as the base for his Romance in F minor. The scherzo movement is written in traditional three-part form, in which the outer segments evoke a kind of melancholic waltz, while the middle part provides a contrast with its faster tempo and transition to a major key. The fourth movement – again in sonata form – shifts the overall expression of the quartet to a somewhat brighter plane. At the very end of the work the music becomes entirely joyful in a mood which seems to anticipate the environment of Dvorak’s so-called Slavic period.