Dvořák was living in Prague at the time near a young amateur violinist and chemistry student named Josef Kruis, who would play violin duets in his free time with a professional violinist named Jan Pelikán. Overhearing their playing, Dvořák got the idea to write a trio for the three of them, with himself playing viola. This piece became the Terzetto in C Major, op. 74, but the work proved too difficult for Kruis. Dvořák began writing a second, easier trio, which he completed under the original title of Miniatures. The three musicians played the piece, and Dvořák was apparently satisfied with it. Still, he immediately began rearranging the work for violin and piano, and it is this one that was eventually published. The new version was released with the title Four Romantic Pieces, and while the original trio version did resurface in the mid-20th century, the dominant identity of op. 75 is the rearrangement for violin and piano.
What, then, is the identity of this piece? After so much revision and rearrangement, and with such a scattered legacy in performance and print, defining what the actual work is can be surprisingly difficult. The obvious and typical solution to this problem is to privilege the published work, which would cement the version for violin and piano as the definitive one. However, the first iteration that was completed and performed was the trio version, written with specific performers in mind and connected to a place of importance for Dvořák. Dvořák himself complicates things, however, as later in life he seems to have completely forgotten that the original trio version existed, noting in 1901 in a discussion with his publisher that “what is supposed to be a trio…cannot be the Romantic Pieces.”
It seems fittingly ironic that the double life Dvořák led between his national activities in Bohemia and his work abroad in Germany and America is reflected in some ways in the Four Romantic Pieces, as this Prague composition found ink and distribution from abroad in Germany. Just as the man was torn between many nations, the music was torn between editions. But being true to Dvořák’s intentions isn’t the goal of performance, and works change and evolve over time. One need only to look at different recordings by different conductors or orchestras to see how the same piece can vary wildly from time to time and place to place. However, considering what exactly the piece is and who exactly the composer was is an undeniable part of the concert-going experience, a process that is active and eternal as long as works like Dvořák’s continue to be programmed.
– Tanner Cassidy