Slavic Journeys programme notes

Classical goes to the country village square! Musaeus String Quartet and guest Mary Lee Voort on keyboard present pieces inspired by folk music traditions. Enjoy the Full Experience, including a Post-Concert Meet & Greet with Pub Fare, presented in Partnership with LA Chefs.

If you prefer to download and print these programme notes, please click here (pdf version).

Extra A – Slavic Journeys

String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 51
Considered one of the most versatile composers of the nineteenth century, Antonín Dvořák wrote prolifically in nearly all genres of classical music extant in his lifetime. As a violist, he devoted special attention to writing string quartets: a chamber ensemble where his instrument played a key role. All told, Dvořák produced fourteen quartets, as well as many other pieces that relied on the traditional scoring of a quartet without adopting its typical form.

Dvořák began his tenth quartet on Christmas Day 1877 and finished it three months later. This unusually slow pace (for him) stemmed from Dvořák’s having to satisfy a sudden demand for his music, ignited through Johannes Brahms’s championing of his work. Brahms was a jury member for the Austrian State Prize for Composition, and very impressed by the works Dvořák had submitted to the competition. Brahms recommended several to his publisher, and their subsequent success won Dvořák international prominence, and he was soon widely adored by the musical world.

Dvořák’s talent at steeping his compositions in his Slavic roots appealed to violinist Jean Becker of the Florentine Quartet, who asked Dvořák to write a piece that was Slavonic in tone. This resulted in the E-flat Major Quartet, often dubbed Slavonic for the Bohemian character that persists throughout.

The four instruments enter the first movement in ascending order, the cello initiating an arpeggiation that roots the piece in E-flat Major. This rich, chordal ostinato provides support for a searing violin melody, interrupted by a move to C Major and brisker pace. The quickened movement propels the piece in the style of a polka, a dance whose origins extend back to Dvořák’s native Bohemia. Unusual in terms of sonata form structure, Dvořák recapitulates the two themes in reverse order, beginning with the broad second theme. The first theme is then reborn from a descending chromatic violin line, closing the piece with the same initial warmth.

In the second movement, Dvořák makes use of the dual character of the Dumka; a folk genre of Ukrainian origin known for its alternation between sorrow and exuberance. He calls to mind folk instruments like the lute or the bagpipes by employing similar timbres in his quartet, featuring strummed cello chords and drones on the viola. The initial lament of the piece is profound; Dvořák went so far as to call it an elegy, but the second section’s livelier tempo balances it out with a brighter spirit. Also distinguishing these two sections is a metric shift from a slow 2/4 to an energetic 3/8 time signature.

The third movement opens with a flowing melody in the violins, punctuated by full harmonies in the lower strings. Romanze proves to have been an apt title, as the lush chordal textures and pizzicato accompaniment capture a sense of the serene.

A quicker pace begins the fourth movement, returning once again to an exuberant Bohemian dance. This momentum continues until a certain hesitancy takes hold in the middle section; the inner voices calm the waters with graceful harmonies while the cello and violin carry the tune. Despite moving to the lyrical the piece cannot resist a final dance to close the quartet.

Bagatelles, Op. 47
The unusual scoring of Antonín Dvořák’s Bagatelles for Two Violins, Violoncello and Harmonium or Piano is a result of their function in his personal life. Dvořák loved chamber music and frequently got together with friends to perform in a casual setting. In 1878 one friend, music historian Josef Srb-Debrnov, came into possession of a harmonium: a small reed organ instrument whose portability was considered quite novel. Likely hoping to try out the instrument, Dvořák wrote the Bagatelles to be performed with his friends at Srb-Debrnov’s home, artfully substituting the harmonium for the viola in the otherwise traditional quartet scoring.

Most composers of the nineteenth century considered the bagatelle to be a short, musically witty instrumental piece with dance influences. Dvořák maintains these dimensions in each individual piece, but the overarching structure of the set is more complex. The first bagatelle adapts the Czech folk tune ‘Hraly dudy’ (translation, ‘The bagpipe played’) as its main theme, a melody later heard in the third and fifth bagatelle. Use of such a cyclical motif in a group of simple pieces was an uncommon choice by Dvořák, indicative of his ability to effectively mix simplicity with strong formal organisation.

The bagatelles begin with the tense mood of ‘Hraly dudy’, the harmonium suggesting the titular bagpipe with its steady drone. The keyboard is not solely relegated to the role of a drone, however, as Dvořák allots it time in the spotlight with the melody. The second piece of the set is written in the old fashioned style of a minuet, emphasizing the bagatelle’s dance influences. Though its melody is almost identical to the first bagatelle, the third differentiates itself with dynamic surges and accented chords that give it rhythmic vitality. A canon between the voices persists in the fourth piece, allowing a sweet melody to shine across all registers. The final bagatelle begins with a cheerful skip, returning to the seriousness that began the set before concluding quietly.

Roumanian Folk Dances
Considered a great synthesizer of classical and folk styles, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók took great interest in studying his country’s traditional folk tunes. He later expanded his research to include folk music of Bulgaria, Serbia, North Africa, and Romania. From 1911 to 1914, Bartók devoted himself to documenting and arranging these folk tunes, producing little music of his own while traveling throughout Eastern Europe. Upon re-emerging as a composer his new works made considerable use of Romanian folk idioms, leading scholars to christen 1915 Bartók’s ‘Romanian Year’.

The Roumanian Folk Dances are complex realisations of simple tunes that Bartók heard while traveling through Transylvania. They utilise modal scales, reorganising the typical pattern of tones and semitones found in a diatonic scale. Modes had traditionally been the most frequently heard scales in folk music of Eastern Europe, their use predating the codification of tonal scale patterns in Western classical music in the seventeenth century. Bartók also gives some of the dances a noticeably North African tinge through added chromaticism, especially through use of an augmented second melodic interval often found in Arabic as well as Hungarian gypsy music.

Zain Solinski