Dvorak, Antonin: Op. 77, String Quintet in G Major (Bass Quintet)

When people say that music should be ‘accessible’, they usually mean it should be something like Dvorak. Or maybe Mozart, or Beethoven, or Brahms, or something that gets a lot of play… but Dvorak, especially, seems to suggest warmth and tunefulness and folk reference and a comforting lack of troubling subtext. And why not? He can deliver on all of these worthy counts. The Bass Quintet, for example, gives all of that. It was an early piece for Dvorak (it has a fairly high opus number because it was published many years after it was written), and seems to thrive on a kind of boisterous, engaging repetition – no crises of an existential type (the presence of the bass itself is quite grounding in that regard) in this piece.

There are two aspects of this accessibility which seem particularly to stand out – two quite different elements which might begin to show on how many levels Dvorak can work to engage the ear and fantasy of a listener. First: there is a quality to his Czech nationalism which seems refreshingly disengaged from political goals, and also free from condescension to folk styles. It is perhaps naïve on the part of this author to think so, but Dvorak never seems to be using folk-music (or folk-style music) to glorify, rile up, or exploit those from whom he heard it. It seems more a source of pure musical fantasy and dancing energy, and seems to evade even a post-modern listener’s skepticisim. Second: Dvorak was enormously efficient with his compositional material.  For a brief example from the bass quintet (admittedly not his most efficient work), consider the openings of the second and fourth movement:


They are awfully similar, but they move with very different energy. And this similiarity provides a moment of accessibility through its sheer, simple, clever introduction of familiarity. One enters the last movement with the comfort of knowing that one has heard this before, somewhere. Which one has, as the composer well knows, in the second movement… just as he knows that this feeling will make one want to hear the whole thing, just for that feeling, again and again.

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