Dvořák spent his early adulthood scraping by as a freelance musician in Prague; he accompanied church services from the organ, played viola in a dance band and the local opera orchestra, taught piano lessons, and kept up his composing on the side. One source of income he tapped was the Austrian State Stipendium, an annual competition for composers. He won cash prizes each year from 1874 to 1876, and, more importantly, caught the attention of the panel’s newest judge, Johannes Brahms. Dvořák’s 1877 application included the Serenade for Strings (Opus 22), a work Dvořák had composed over twelve days in May of 1875. By this point, Brahms was so impressed that he forwarded scores on to his publisher, Simrock, writing, “For several years I have enjoyed works sent in by Antonín Dvořák (pronounced Dvorschak) of Prague. … Dvořák has written all manner of things: operas (Czech), symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. In any case, he is a very talented man. Moreover, he is poor! I ask you to think about it!” Simrock soon commissioned Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. Within months of that work’s 1878 publication, performances had occurred across the continent and even as far away as London and New York, launching Dvořák’s international career.
The Serenade, as practiced by eighteenth-century composers, comprised light-hearted (and often forgettable) music to be performed outdoors at public gatherings in the evening. By the nineteenth century, composers applied the term more generally to pieces of a pleasing, “night-music” character with a loose assemblage of movements, a format that suited Dvořák’s gift for melodic invention. Most of the movements of the Serenade for Strings follow a streamlined three-part structure, with statements of a primary theme (or group of themes) separated by a contrasting middle section. The opening Moderato demonstrates this simple elegance, forgoing an introduction and developmental transitions, and instead moving without delay from one memorable melody to the next. Singable themes continue to unfurl in the Waltz, Scherzo and Larghetto, the last of which provides a rich and sentimental departure from the Serenade’s cheery disposition. The Finale rounds out the Serenade with a dash of craftiness, introducing canonic imitation and surprising transitions into new sections. Playful quotations help to bring the work full circle: The touching Larghetto theme returns with a wry, syncopated accompaniment, and the mild-mannered Moderato theme appears in a trick ending before the boisterous coda.
Aaron Grad ©2013