SUK Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale (7’)
SMETANA String Quartet No.1 From My Life (31’)
Arr. BURLEIGH (adapted for string quartet by Jeremy Birchall)
I’ve been in the storm
Oh Lord, what a morning (7′)
DVOŘÁK String Quartet No.12 American Quartet (26’)
Opening with Suk’s Meditation on the Chorale St Wenceslas and including the African-American composer Burleigh’s quartet settings of I’ve been in the storm and Oh Lord, what a morning, this sumptuous evening of music concludes with Dvořák’s most famous quartet.
This turbulent and thrilling selection of music tracks the relationship between nineteenth century quartet writing in eastern Europe and the musical conversations that played a decisive role in the evolution of chamber music.
SMETANA Bedřich, String Quartet No.1 in E minor ‘From my Life’
Allegro vivo appassionato
Allegro moderato à la Polka
In 1874 Smetana fell ill with an infection that led within months to total deafness. For peace and quiet he moved to the village of Jabkenice in Central Bohemia, and it was here that he produced this overtly autobiographical quartet in 1876. Smetana supplied his own commentary on the work. It opens with ‘the call of fate (the main motif, first heard on the viola) into the struggle of life. The love of art in my youth; inclination towards romanticism in music as well as in love and life in general; a warning about my future misfortune – that fateful ringing of the highest tones in my ears which told me of my coming deafness.’
The second movement (à la Polka) brings back, according to Smetana, ‘memories of the merry time of my youth’, while the third ‘reminds me of the beauty of my first love for the girl who later became my faithful wife. The struggle with unhappy fate, the final achievement of my goal.’ For the fourth movement Smetana wanted to depict: ‘the recognition of a national awareness of our beautiful art, the pleasure derived from it and the happiness of success along the way until a terrible-sounding high tone starts ringing in my ear (in the quartet a high E) … as a warning of my cruel fate.’
The first performance took place in Prague on 29 March 1879. During his last years, Smetana’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. Early in 1884 he was moved to an asylum in Prague where he died a few months later.
© Nigel Simeone 2015
BURLEIGH Henry Thacker, I’ve been in the storm & Oh Lord, what a morning
Henry (Harry) Burleigh was born in Pennsylvania in 1866 – his grandfather had been emancipated from slavery in the 1830s and his father fought for the Union Navy during the American Civil War. As a child, Burleigh’s grandfather taught him the melodies that were commonly sung by enslaved African-Americans. In his teenage years he developed into a fine classical singer, making regular solo appearances at churches and synagogues.
At the age of 26 he moved to New York to study at the National Conservatory of Music, which coincided with the arrival of the Conservatory’s new director, Antonín Dvořák, who’d been brought to America with the specific role of laying the foundations of an authentic national musical style. Dvořák was thrilled by Burleigh’s voice, and there’s some evidence to suggest that it was Burleigh who introduced certain melodies to Dvořák which would find their way into the ‘New World’ Symphony and ‘American’ String Quartet.
Burleigh’s long career was centred around performing and publishing his arrangements, helping to popularise Swing Low, Deep River and Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. He died at the age of 82 and his body is interred in Erie, the town where he was born and which celebrates his music and wider legacy with a week-long annual festival.
© Tom McKinney
DVOŘÁK Antonin, String Quartet in F Op.96 The American Quartet
Allegro ma non troppo
Finale. Vivace ma non troppo
Dvořák was teaching in New York in 1893, and for his summer holiday he travelled over a thousand miles westwards, to the village of Spillville in Iowa, set in the valley of the Turkey River. It had been colonized by Czechs in the 1850s and in these congenial surroundings Dvořák quickly wrote the String Quartet in F major. On the last page of the manuscript draft, he wrote: ‘Finished on 10 June 1893, Spillville. I’m satisfied. Thanks be to God. It went quickly.’
Coming immediately after the ‘New World’ Symphony (which was to have its triumphant première in New York later in the year), the quartet has a mood that suggests something of his contentment in Spillville. Dvořák’s assistant Josef Kovařík recalled the composer’s routine: walks, composing, playing the organ for Mass and talking to locals, observing that he ‘scarcely ever talked about music and I think that was one of the reasons why he felt so happy there.’
Just how ‘American’ is the quartet? While remaining completely true to himself, Dvořák admitted that ‘as for my … F major String Quartet and the Quintet (composed here in Spillville) – I should never have written these works the way I did if I hadn’t seen America’. The first performance was given in Boston on New Year’s Day 1894 by the Kneisel Quartet.
© Nigel Simeone