ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK Piano Quartet No. 2 in Eb Major
In 1867, the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire brought together disparate groups of peoples and ethnicities under the so-called Dual Monarchy. In theory, the creation of the Dual Monarchy was intended to unite members of Central and Eastern Europe into one great German nation. In practice, however, new reforms in education and electoral law designed to grow the ‘self-styled’ German population only bolstered nationalist sentiment amongst the non-German peoples. To the metropolitan bourgeoisie of cities like the capital, Vienna, Bohemia (the largest historical region of what is known today as Czechia) was a land of illiterate, undeveloped peasants. Czech nationalism was viewed as a threat and suddenly for a Czech composer like Antonin Dvořák, the tantalizing exoticism that delighted international audiences a decade earlier became a stain on his reputation in Austria-Hungary. Though these prejudices later evolved, Dvořák’s “exotic” Bohemian roots were at times still a hindrance to his reception in the new Vienna.
Just a decade earlier, it was precisely his unique blend of classical form with elements of Slavonic music that helped first popularize Dvořák’s music in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Without quoting actual folk tunes, his use of repeated melodic figures, angular dance rhythms, and strong contrasts in dynamics and expression lend a pastoral character to what could otherwise be characterized as ‘high’ German music. Johannes Brahms––perhaps then the living epitome of ‘high’ German music––so adored Dvořák’s very Czech Moravian Duets for soprano, alto, and piano that he recommended them to his own publisher, the Berlin-based Fritz Simrock. So popular at the time was broadly Slavic/Slavonic/Bohemian/Czech-sounding music (for better or worse, these terms were all used a bit interchangeably) that Brahms wrote a set of Hungarian Dances, the success of which prompted Simrock to commission Dvořák for his own set of Slavonic Dances for piano four-hands.