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string sextet

COMPOSED 14 May - 27 May 1878
PREMIERE - DATE AND PLACE privat performance: 29 July 1879, Berlin
public performance: 9 November 1879, Berlin
PREMIERE - PERFORMER(S) privat performance: Joachim Quartet (Joseph Joachim, Heinrich de Ahna, Emanuel Wirth, Hugo Dechert), Heinrich Jacobsen, Robert Hausmann
public performance: Joachim Quartet (Joseph Joachim, Heinrich de Ahna, Emanuel Wirth, Hugo Dechert), Heinrich Jacobsen, Robert Hausmann
FIRST EDITION Simrock, 1879, Berlin
MAIN KEY A major
1. Allegro moderato
2. Dumka. Poco allegretto 
3. Furiant. Presto
4. Finale. Tema con variazioni. Allegretto grazioso, quasi andantino
DURATION approx. 33 min.

composition history, premiere and subsequent performances

Dvorak wrote his String Sextet in A major within a mere fourteen days in May 1878, immediately after completing the piano version of his first series of Slavonic Dances during the period between his work on the first and second Slavonic Rhapsodies. The sextet thus originated in the middle of his so-called Slavic period, in which the composer endeavoured to introduce Slavic folk elements into his music. This work, published by Simrock in September of the following year, was important for the public reception of his work in general since it was Dvorak’s first chamber piece to be performed abroad, and this even before its Czech premiere. Violinist Joseph Joachim, one of the finest musicians of his day, was so taken with the work when he first heard it that he decided to get together with other musicians on 29 July 1879 for a private performance of the piece at a gala evening held in Dvorak’s honour, attended by the composer. The same musicians performed the public premiere in Berlin on 9 November 1879. Joachim was also responsible for introducing the work to English audiences soon afterwards, when it was performed in London twice during the same season (in February and March 1880). Within a few months of its premiere, the sextet was also presented by various other ensembles in music venues around Europe and overseas: Dresden, Cologne, Prague, Wiesbaden and New York, among others.

general characteristics

The Sextet in A major is highly suggestive of Slavonic folklore. Formally, this trait is further emphasised by the fact that the second movement – for the first time in Dvorak’s oeuvre – is marked “Dumka” (a musical form derived from a folksong originating in Little Russia), and the third movement is entitled “Furiant” (a stylisation of a Czech folk dance). Dvorak extended the traditional quartet ensemble to include a second viola and cello, which helped to create the rich tone colour and vibrant sound. With respect to sound density, melodic wealth and the character of the chosen thematic material, this is one of the works in which Dvorak came closest to his great example, Franz Schubert, without forfeiting his own originality and distinction as a musician. The piece is typical for its sunny atmosphere and spontaneous appeal on the concert platform. A documented statement from conductor Vaclav Talich is proof of this. When he first heard Dvorak’s sextet in 1941, he declared: “Oh my word! This is so beautiful! Beautiful musical ideas, a beautiful structure and a beautiful sound! God himself must have been walking the Czech Lands when his humble servant Dvorak bequeathed to us a work of such excellence and sanctity...”.

formal characteristics

The first movement of the sextet is written in traditional sonata form with three themes, while the second subject is exposed in the irregular key of C sharp minor, and the final theme in C sharp major. The movement is also a testimony of Dvorak’s highly inventive contrapuntal treatment and imaginative harmonies. The decision to mark the second movement as a “dumka” is certainly justified, given the melancholic nature of the main subject; otherwise, the movement lacks the typical trait of Dvorak’s other dumkas, namely the alternation of two contrastive passages. The secondary theme is noteworthy for its markedly Hungarian tone, which is one of the features common to Schubert’s chamber music. The third movement, marked as “furiant”, adopts the lively, stirring expression of this folk dance, but without the typical alternation of two-beat and three-beat rhythms. The movement follows the traditional scherzo scheme A-B-A, while both parts contain clear echoes of the Slavonic Dances he had just completed at that time (specifically No. 1 in C major, whose second subject provides material for an almost exact quotation). The fourth movement is conceived as a theme and variations, involving a periodic melody embroidered within a remarkable harmonic progression oscillating between the keys of B minor, A major and F sharp minor. This tonal ambiguity again brings it into line with Schubert’s oeuvre. After the introduction of the theme we hear six variations which essentially follow the harmonic plan of the theme while varying the melodic and rhythmical structure, at the same time allowing the voices to weave an intricate contrapuntal fabric.


period press review

The Daily Telegraph (London), 11 March 1880:

“On Monday last the unaccustomed name of Anton Dvorak appeared for the second time in the programme of these concerts. "And who," some may ask, "is Anton Dvorak?" [...] The Sextet in A major (Op. 48), played for the second time on Monday night, is a good example of the new composer. "Its plan and method of development," writes Mr. J. W. Davison, in the official programme, "are altogether original," but this statement, while perfectly true, does not represent its full claim to the rarest of musical qualities. We find originality in the character of its themes, especially in those of the second movement (elegy), the third (furiant), and the fourth, which is an air (varied) of the broadest national type, and so puzzling in key that Mr. Davison is fain to describe it as, "in more respects than one, calculated to perplex the ear as to absolute tonality," though "virtually in A major." Not less original than the themes are, in many cases, their harmonic treatment, while nowhere is the higher mission of music neglected, in virtue of which it appeals to an inner sense at the same time that it confers physical and intellectual gratification. The elaboration of the principal movements forms another striking feature in the work. With the vigour and animation, not less distinctive of his national type than are occasional dreaminess and languor, Dvorak keeps his parts ever on the move, and revels in the exercise of polyphonic art. Yet only here and there do we observe a tendency to overcrowd the score with details, and to obscure the outline by a mist of subordinate strokes. The rule is clearness, such as enables the listener to follow alike both general plan and filling in. Some of the details confer upon the work an exquisite piquancy and grace; and a first hearing of the entire composition involves a series of surprises, so unexpected and new are the abounding touches of the master's hand. Clearly we must know much more of Dvorak, and that soon.”