About this Piece
Dvořák was a professional violist himself and came by his deep and abiding interest in chamber music naturally. (He was principal violist for the Provisional Theater orchestra in Prague for nine years, under the direction of Smetana for the last five years; Dvořák also played with that orchestra when Wagner came to Prague to conduct it in 1863, performing the overture to Tannhäuser, the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, and other excerpts under the German master.) Dvořák’s Op. 1 was a string quintet, and his first string quartet was his Op. 2. His 11th string quartet was composed in 1881, on a commission from Josef Hellmesberger, Sr. (the concertmaster of the Imperial Opera in Vienna and founder of his own quartet), probably instigated by Brahms, who had become an ardent advocate of Dvořák’s music.
This was in a period that saw Dvořák gain increasing international success, which brought with it increasing pressure to “internationalize” his staunchly Czech music. Dvořák’s new publishers wanted German translations for his songs, the Imperial Opera tried to lure him with a German libretto, and well-meaning friends such as the influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick reminded him that “it would be advantageous for your things to become known beyond your narrow Czech fatherland, which in any case does not do much for you.”
As practical career advice, there was much truth in these urgings. But Dvořák was also all too aware of the Habsburg oppression of all things Czech and the general German condescension towards Czech art. Dvořák dedicated his Symphony No. 6 to the conductor Hans Richter, who wanted to lead its premiere in Vienna but was unable to do so because of anti-Czech opposition. The work was premiered in Prague in 1881; with Vienna opposed, its first performance abroad was in Leipzig in 1882, quickly followed by one in London.
In this quartet, intended for prominent premiere in Vienna, Dvořák seems at first to have heeded his mentors, suppressing almost all the overtly Czech elements that had filled his Quartet No. 10. (Ironically, the Vienna Ringtheater burned down shortly before the scheduled premiere of Op. 61 in December 1881, and its first documented performance was by the Joachim Quartet in Berlin almost a year later.) The opening movement has the propulsive rhythmic energy of Beethoven, the lyric grace of Schubert, and a spirit of harmonic adventure to equal both of those Viennese masters.
The slow movement is a dreamy adagio, and a sense of Czech dance seems to creep into the scherzo, although it carries strong reminders of Beethoven as well. Its main theme references both a motif from the opening movement and Dvořák’s own Polonaise for cello and piano, composed two years earlier.
In the bright and joyful finale, that motif from the first movement is transformed yet again, into something very folklike. And why not? After all, it was his Slavonic Dances that first brought Dvořák international acclaim. A reflective violin cadenza dials down the boisterous celebration just before a brief, jubilant coda. —John Henken