DVOŘÁK Antonin, Quartet No.11 in C Op.61
In 1881, the Viennese violinist Joseph Hellmesberger asked Dvořák to write a new work for his quartet. In October, while working on the opera Dimitrij, Dvořák was alarmed to read an announcement in the Viennese press that the first performance of this quartet would be given on 15 December. He wrote to a friend on 5 November: ‘It still doesn’t exist! … I now have three movements prepared and am working on the finale.’ In fact, Dvořák had no reason to panic: he worked quickly and the C major quartet was written between 25 October and 10 November 1881.
It has fewer overtly Slavonic elements than its immediate predecessor (the E flat Quartet, Op.51), and, perhaps in a nod to Hellmesberger’s commission, the main influences are from Viennese masters: Beethoven and, especially, Schubert. The spacious first movement transforms its two main themes with great ingenuity and harmonic imagination. The Adagio opens with a fervent theme presented as an intimate dialogue between the two violins; its second idea has what Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek described as a ‘veiled expression of melancholy’. The influence of Beethoven is most apparent in the rather terse Scherzo while the falling theme of the central Trio provides a delightful contrast. The finale (a sonata-rondo) brings the work to a joyous conclusion, with Dvořák at his most inimitably Czech.
After all the rush, Hellmesberger’s advertised December premiere in Vienna had to be cancelled due to a catastrophic fire at the Ringtheater, and the earliest known performance was given by Joseph Joachim’s quartet on 2 November 1882 in Berlin.
© Nigel Simeone