Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings

Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector, Bard Music Festival

Antonín Dvořák is hailed as the quintessential Czech composer, and proud nationalist sentiment was undoubtedly central to his self-definition, music, and success. Yet he was far from provincial: he actively sought an international reputation and brilliantly achieved one. In 1874 the young composer applied for an Austrian state stipend to benefit needy artists. He was awarded a grant and a wave of creative energy followed, with one of the happiest results being his Serenade for Strings, composed in just 12 days in May 1875. The carefree mood of the piece shows that the composer was freed “from anxiety in his creative work” (the stipulated goal of the prize); he was also newly married and had recently become a father.

The next year Johannes Brahms joined the jury and Dvořák won again, as he did in later years. This early success gradually led to international fame, especially after Brahms recommended him to his own German publisher, who began by publishing his Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances. While these small pieces proved a “goldmine,” Dvořák wanted to move on to bigger works—symphonies, concertos, and operas—that would be judged as part of the mainstream Western tradition, not merely as a colorful local phenomenon.

The strategy worked, not just in nearby Vienna, where Brahms and the powerful critic Eduard Hanslick were ardent supporters, but also much farther abroad. Dvořák traveled to England frequently and in 1891 was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. He soon received an offer to come to America. Jeannette Thurber, a visionary music patron who was president of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, invited him to become the director of the institution, just a few years old at the time. Dvořák moved in September 1892 to an attractive brownstone on East 17th Street. He started to explore American musical culture, particularly African American spirituals and music by Native Americans, an influence apparent in a series of substantial pieces he wrote during his two and a half years here. Most famous is his final Symphony No. 9, subtitled “Z nového světa” (From the New World). That work drew not only on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855) but also on American musical resources. He read an article that included musical examples of spirituals and heard some sung by Harry T. Burleigh, an African American student at the National Conservatory.

Dvořák composed two serenades, the one for strings we hear today in 1875 and another for winds three years later. The one for strings is in five movements, most of them in an ABA form with contrasting middle sections. Dvořák’s enormous lyric gifts are immediately apparent in the opening Moderato, which has a dance-like middle section. The Tempo di valse offers a slow waltz and boldly modulating trio of a more melancholy nature. The lively Scherzo: Vivace brings humor to the piece. Loving lyricism returns in the Larghetto, which makes reference back to the second movement. The Finale: Allegro vivace departs from the ABA structures of the preceding movements and provides a large-scale rounding off of the entire piece by bringing back the opening theme of the first movement before a fast and furious conclusion.