String Quintet No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97, B180
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
26 June - 1 August 1893
Premiere - date and place
12 January 1894, New York
Kneisel Quartet (Franz Kneisel, Otto Roth, Louis Svecenski, Alwin Schroeder) and Max Zach
Simrock, 1894, Berlín
E flat major
Parts / movements
1. Allegro non tanto
2. Allegro vivo
4. Finale. Allegro giusto
approx. 33 min.
composition history and premiere
The Quintet in E flat major was written during Dvorak’s time in America. It originated very soon after the String Quartet in F major while the composer was vacationing in Spillville (Dvorak drew up his initial sketch for the quintet a mere three days after completing the quartet). This new work also appeared within a remarkably short space of time – the composer was greatly inspired by his surroundings and he was also in a highly positive frame of mind: after a long separation, he had been reunited with all his children, he was surrounded by nature and, moreover, he was in daily contact with the families of Czech emigres, who reminded him of his distant homeland. The quintet was premiered in New York on 12 January 1894 by the Kneisel Quartet, with Max Zach on second viola. The work was first performed in Prague on 10 October 1894 by the Czech Quartet and Ferdinand Lachner. Simrock published it that same year.
The Quintet in E flat major is a work of rare originality, and its dazzling impact ensured it a permanent place among Dvorak’s most successful compositions. In contrast to his previous quartet, here, the extended instrumental setting makes for a more colourful and more vibrant expression. The quintet also reflects the environment in which it originated: in addition to the attributes which are typical for Dvorak’s American oeuvre in general – the pentatonic scale, syncopated rhythms, minor seventh in a minor key – we will hear shades of Native American folklore which lend this piece its unique colour. This particularly applies to the “drum” rhythm derived from the rhythmical accompaniment to Indian ritual song. (At the time Dvorak was spending his summer in Spillville, the village was visited by a group of Iroquois Indians who offered some of their artefacts for sale; they also performed traditional music and dance as part of their promotion. Dvorak was enchanted by these performances and, for the duration of their stay in the village, he apparently attended every one.) Like the previous Quartet in F major, the quintet also distances itself significantly from the trends in European chamber music at that time, above all, in the frequent exposition of the unison melody on its own, without additional contrapuntal voices and even without any harmonic texture. Thus, in certain passages, the whole musical image is reduced to a striking ostinato rhythm and “bare” melodic line – a clear echo of Indian song in unison accompanied by primitive drum rhythms. Authority on Dvorak’s chamber oeuvre, musicologist Hartmut Schick, comments on this original aspect of the work in the following words: “It is music which often enough restricts itself to only four or five different notes, instead of dealing with the whole chromatic scale; music which discovers rhythm as an autonomous element that was almost lost in late Romanticism; music which re-discovers the one-line melody as a phenomenon in itself, and not in a Wagnerian manner as the product of harmony; music which introduces material from nature and so-called primitive music into the sacred halls of the chamber genre; music which wants to be easily playable and entertaining, instead of becoming more of a strain for the listener and increasingly more strenuous for the player.”
The first movement is written in regular sonata form with three themes. The exposition is preceded by 28 bars of introduction, which anticipates the main theme. The opening of the movement appears to imitate the sound of a single voice, since it begins with a four-bar solo without harmonic or rhythmical accompaniment whatsoever. This passage is moreover written not for the first violin, but for the second viola, whose sound is more reminiscent of the tone colour of the human voice. The marked, rhythmical second subject introduces the drum rhythm for the first time, which is also transferred to the final theme. This eloquent rhythmical figure also plays an important part in the development section. After a powerful surge in the coda, where the main theme is heard in strong unison in all the instruments, spanning three octaves, the music dies down once more and the movement ends softly with an episode taken from the introduction.
The second movement, a scherzo, opens with a rhythmical ostinato figure which, of all the parts of the quintet, perhaps most recalls the sound of Indian drum rhythms. The theme itself similarly has shades of the exotic, with its uniform rhythm consisting almost exclusively of crotchets. While the outer segments of the scherzo are dance-like in character, the middle part brings a strong contrast in the form of a broad, leisurely melody heard first in the viola against a pizzicato accompaniment in the other instruments, and later high up in the violin. This is one of Dvorak’s most enchanting themes, and also one of the longest – forming an arc over thirty-eight bars. According to some interpretations, its nostalgic melody is rooted in an impression of the endless prairies of the Interior Lowlands of America.
The third part of the quintet is undeniably the composer’s loveliest variation movement. The very nature of its main theme is a testimony of this, a wistful melodic arc spanning 32 bars, whose first half in A flat minor is filled with melancholy, while the second in A flat major offers consolation. Dvorak had originally written this theme back in December of the previous year as the melody for a new American national anthem set to a poem by Samuel Francis Smith, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”. The theme is introduced in its essential form, followed by five variations which elaborate its primary rhythm, instrumentation and melody with a whole array of imaginative ideas. The movement ends with a return to the theme in its original cast.
The fourth movement is written as a regular rondo incorporating the scheme A-B-A-C-A-B-A and is one of its author’s most joyful musical expressions. The cheerful main theme (A) is typical for its skipping rhythm, the essential element of which already appeared in the quintet’s first movement (and it also features in other works by Dvorak, for example, in his famous Humoresque No. 7). Theme B is distinctly “Indian” in its temperament, with its melodic line incorporating a sequence of triplets with minor sevenths, and the uniform pizzicato accompaniment. In contrast to the prevailing dance-like character of the movement, theme C brings a distinctive, unbridled melody which is pure Dvorak. From a structural point of view, the close of the movement – and, indeed, the entire work – is one of Dvorak’s finest.