Dvorak, Antonin: Op. 87, Piano Quartet in E-flat Major

No matter whether a listener favors the technical, architectural influence of Brahms or the strong flavor of folk music and ethnographic exploration in the music of Antonin Dvoràk, he can always find in the music a great deal simply to enjoy. Partly as a result of its lyric ease, Dvoràk’s music has sometimes been dismissed as popular or facile (even by his most influential and consequential supporter, the perpetually crabby Johannes Brahms). But his facility cannot be treated as mere dexterity; even his ‘simplest’ works offer great warmth and fantasy.  And so his works, rich in atmosphere, continue to resonate.

It is worth remarking (partly as a way of almost-guiltily justifying the unmistakeable accessibility of feeling in his music) that Dvoràk himself travelled and studied widely, and that his contributions to world musical culture were of extra-European significance. He not only brought ethnic Czech music to the halls and academies of Vienna, but also brought himself and his music as far as Spillsville, Iowa – far outside the Austro-Hungarian sphere of influence.  Dvoràk’s interest in American music (which, very unusually, included interest in Native American and African American music) was genuine, thorough, influential, and appreciated.  And his music quickly traveled further still. Consider the following letter from San Francisco, written only five years after the Piano Quartet was completed, some six thousand miles away:

November 18, 1897

Dear Sir,

I take great pleasure in sending you the enclosed programme, which you will see contains one of your master-works, the [Piano] Quartet in E-flat. It was received with the greatest enthusiasm. Our organization, which has been giving chamber concerts for the last four years, has already produced some of your Piano Trios, the Piano Quintet and has been especially successful with the beautiful Terzetto for strings. I have been enquiring for your latest String Quartet, but have been unable to get it…

The E-flat Piano Quartet is more conventionally (classically) Viennese than, say, the ‘Dumky’ Trio or the ‘American’ Quartet; its movements and themes are tightly related. And of course the quartet never loses the fleet warmth of folklike melody. But those are merely things to think about, if it should seem desirable to listen for things; it would be just as fine to simply travel with it as it goes. It has been many places; it goes many places; and it has many places yet to go.

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