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piano trio no. 4 "dumky" 

opus number
Burghauser catalogue number
November 1890 - 12 February 1891 
premiere - date and place
11 April 1891, Prague
premiere - performer(s)
Ferdinand Lachner, Hanus Wihan, Antonin Dvorak 
parts / movements
1. Lento maestoso, E minor
2. Poco adagio, C sharp minor
3. Andante, A major
4. Andante moderato, D minor
5. Allegro, E flat major
6. Lento maestoso, C minor 
approx. 30 min. 

composition history, premiere and subsequent performances

Dvorak began working on his sixth piano trio (today the fourth in existence), with its subtitle “Dumky” (“Dumkas”), immediately after completing his Requiem, in November 1890. It took him less than three months to complete, and this including an extended break from his endeavours. As he progressed Dvorak informed his friend Gobl that he was working on a new composition which he characterised as “a little piece for violin, cello and piano. It will be both happy and sad. In some places it will be like a melancholic song, elsewhere like a merry dance; but, all told, the style will be lighter or, if I might put it another way, more popular, in short, so that it will appeal to both higher and lower echelons.” The mention of this deliberate “lightness” of style might explain why the highly popular “Dumky” has, in the long term, eclipsed the composer’s masterpiece, the Piano Trio in F minor, even though it cannot match its sophistication, the gravity of its musical testimony or its intellectual depth. The premiere of the “Dumky” was performed just two months after Dvorak had completed the score, in Prague on 11 April 1891, during a gala evening held in his honour – Dvorak had recently been awarded an honorary degree from Prague’s university. Dvorak himself sat at the piano for the premiere. This was not the last time that he performed this work in public: we have documentation which confirms that Dvorak performed his “Dumky” at the piano on forty-four occasions. The majority of these were part of an extended “farewell” concert tour of Czech and Moravian towns and cities which the composer organised in the spring of 1892 before his departure for the United States. The trio was published in 1894 by Berlin-based publisher Simrock. At this time Dvorak was still in the United States, so the corrections were selflessly carried out by his friend, Johannes Brahms.

what is a “dumka”?

The word “dumka” is the diminutive of the Ukrainian word “duma” (meaning “thought”, “idea”, “reflection”, “contemplation”) which will be found in various mutations in other Slav languages (the Czech “dumat” means “to ponder” or “to contemplate”). In musical terms, the word originally refers to a specific type of Ukrainian (Little Russian) song form which is typical for its leisurely tempo and meditative, melancholic character. During the course of the 19th century, the dumka was transferred to higher artistic genres by composers – largely Slavs themselves – who drew inspiration from it: Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Chopin, Janacek and, most notably, Antonin Dvorak.

piano reduction of Dumky

the dumka in the works of Antonin Dvorak

In contrast to its original folk model, Dvorak’s idea of the dumka is a musical movement founded on the alternation of two strongly contrasting passages: wistfully melancholic and wildly rhythmical. This extension of the original form to include a new contradictory element is characteristic for Dvorak, since the art of contrast was a means of expression that came entirely naturally to him. The addition of further thematic fabric moreover allowed the composer greater scope for expanding his ideas, as in the case of the Piano Trio “Dumky”. It cannot be said, however, that this principle of alternating contrasting segments was discovered by Dvorak, as some would have it. Other composers proceeded in a similar way, such as Tchaikovsky (piano Dumka, Op. 59) or Mussorgsky (Parasya’s dumka aria from the opera The Fair at Sorochyntsi). Nevertheless, Dvorak was able to transform the stylisation of this musical configuration into a major art form:

Dumka, Op. 35, B64

Dumka, Op. 12/1, B136

Slavonic Dance, Op. 46/2, B78

Slavonic Dance Op. 72/2, B145

Slavonic Dance, Op. 72/4, B145

String Sextet in A major, Op. 48, B80 - 2nd movement

Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, B155 – 2nd movement

String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 51, B92 – 2nd movement

Piano Trio No. 4 "Dumky", Op. 90, B 166

general characteristics

In terms of its form and content, the Piano Trio “Dumky” assumes a special position in the composer’s oeuvre, since this is his last and, at the same time, most comprehensive treatment of the Ukrainian dumka. This model, which Dvorak adopted on many occasions for the individual movements of chamber or orchestral compositions, here becomes the main principle upon which the entire work is based. Its unusual (at least in the case of Dvorak) six-movement structure has prompted various interpretations. The work might be seen on the one hand as a simple sequence of six essentially independent movements linked together by a common “dumka principle”, nevertheless, the manner in which the movements are arranged also suggests a veiled sonata-form scheme: the first three dumkas combined (these are marked attacca) represent the opening movement; the fourth dumka replaces the slow movement; the fifth, essentially a fast movement, is analogous to a scherzo; and the sixth dumka rounds off the work in a similar way to a final rondo movement. The tonal scheme of the cycle is somewhat unusual: while the trio as a whole is generally marked as being in the key of E minor, the individual movements are written in the keys of E minor, C sharp minor, A major, D minor, E flat major and C minor. Despite the impression of “lightness” the audience may gain from the trio, this is a challenging work for the performers. As Dvorak himself noted, “my Dumky trio is very tricky to perform”. This is particularly true of the cello, which plays an important role during the exposition of the “Dumka” themes.

The first dumka has a monothematic base; its one theme appears in various guises, softly melancholic, passionate, but also sprightly and merry. The second movement is founded on two themes and, within the cycle as a whole, introduces the greatest mood contrasts, between the quiet lament of the principal idea and the stirring rhythms of the second theme, which the composer then propels towards an expression of rapture. The third movement has a more joyful atmosphere and is again constructed from a single, richly varied theme. The fourth movement is built up around a free rondo, in which the main march-like theme returns several times. The fifth dumka is the only one marked with a faster tempo (Allegro) and, while it is the liveliest in the cycle, the basic melancholic mood is still tangible even here. The final dumka is also constructed upon two contrasting themes which together assert the overall mood of the cycle and round off the work with a flourish.