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string quartet No. 1

COMPOSED March 1862
PREMIERE - DATE AND PLACE 6 January 1888, Prague
PREMIERE - PERFORMER(S) Karel Ondricek, Jan Pelikan, Petr Mares, Alois Neruda
FIRST EDITION Hudebni matice Umelecke besedy, 1948, Prague
MAIN KEY A major
1. Andante. Allegro
2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
3. Allegro scherzando
4. Allegro animato
DURATION approx 33 min.

general characteristics

String Quartet in A major is the first of Dvorak’s series of fourteen string quartets. This highly accomplished attempt by the 21-year-old composer to master the quartet genre reveals the influence of Schubertian Romanticism, but also betrays the rudiments of his characteristic idiom. This particularly concerns the second movement, whose enchanting cantilena, set against a regular accompanying pulse, gives us an idea of the master of melody he was to become, or the typically Dvorakian sense of immediacy which typifies the main subject of the first movement. Also distinctive for Dvorak’s future compositional style is the endeavour to unify the work using a quotation from the introduction of the first movement in the final movement. Musicologist Hartmut Schick brings our attention to a link between the thematic material of this work and Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony – the use of the pentatonic scale which is usually only mentioned in connection with Dvorak’s oeuvre from his time in America. The original version of the work shows an attempt to move away from the restrictions of Classical forms, and the tendency to elaborate the movements to a much greater extent. Dvorak later remedied this shortcoming when, before its first performance in 1888, he radically shortened the work – he cut the outer movements by a quarter, and the second movement by a whole third.

premiere and subsequent performances

Like many of Dvorak’s works from his young days, this one lay forgotten for a long period. Dvorak traded his score with his friend Frantisek Huspauer for unidentified printed scores of works by Beethoven. It wasn’t until many years later, when Dvorak was planning to have some of his early works performed, that he asked for his manuscript back (again an exchange: on this occasion, Huspauer received from Dvorak the manuscript of the original piano version of Stabat mater). Dvorak revised the quartet, shortened it, and had it included on the programme for a concert organised by the artists’ association Umelecka beseda in the Rudolfinum on 6 January 1888. At the time, Josef Bohuslav Foerster wrote of his impression of the work in Narodni listy: “This quartet is the product of a fresh imagination and confidence in the use of musical form; however, in a few places, we did sense the diffidence of the juvenile composer.” This was the only opportunity Dvorak had to hear his work, for the next performance took place almost thirty years later, on 29 October 1917 in Obecni dum in Prague. The quartet wasn’t published until 1948.