Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904): Serenade for Strings
Antonín Dvořák is hailed as the quintessential Czech composer, and proud nationalist sentiment was undoubtedly central to his self-definition, music, and success. Yet he was far from provincial: He actively sought an international reputation and brilliantly achieved one. After studies in Prague and some years playing viola in an orchestra conducted by the great Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (an early advocate), Dvořák was eager to devote more time to composing. With this goal in mind he entered a competition that gave grants to poor young artists. He had to prove genuine need and got approval with a comment that “the applicant, who has never been able to acquire a piano of his own, deserves a grant to ease his straitened circumstances and free him from anxiety in his creative work.” Among the Vienna-based jury for the Austrian State Stipendium were such musical heavy hitters as critic Eduard Hanslick, and conductors Johann Herbeck and Otto Dessoff. In 1874 Dvořák submitted 15 pieces, including his Third and Fourth symphonies, and won on his first try.
Brahms Promotes a Poor Young Artist Johannes Brahms joined the jury the next year and was so impressed by the young composer that he contacted his own publisher, Fritz Simrock in Berlin: “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! The duets will show you what I mean.” Simrock took the good advice and published the Moravian Duets Brahms mentioned, as well as the first set of Slavonic Dances. The exposure opened even more doors. Distinguished conductors and soloists took up Dvořák’s cause, further spreading his international fame, and highly desirable commissions began to come his way.
A wave of creative energy also followed winning the stipend the first time with one of the happiest results being the charming Serenade for Strings, composed in just 12 days in May 1875. The carefree mood of the piece shows that the composer was indeed freed “from anxiety in his creative work”; he was also newly married and had recently become a father.
A Little Night Music in the Czech Lands A musical dictionary from 1732 defined a “serenade” as “an evening piece; because such works are usually performed on quiet and pleasant nights.” Initially it was entertainment music, usually written for aristocrats, and meant to divert (hence the related genre of the “divertimento”). Such pieces often functioned as Tafelmusik, literally “table music” that accompanied eating and other activities—thus a type of background music, aural wallpaper, or 18th-century Muzak. Mozart composed the most famous serenades of the 18th century, usually scored for wind instruments. He also wrote the famous Serenade in G major for strings, subtitled “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (A Little Night Music).
While Mozart provided a model for Dvořák, Brahms did as well. Brahms put off writing a symphony for many years, until he was in his mid-40s, but on the way he composed two impressive orchestral serenades that might be considered “disguised symphonies.” (The first one for a time even bore the title “Symphony-Serenade.”) Dvořák followed suit with two serenades of his own, the one for strings we hear today in 1875 and another for winds three years later. (He started a third one in 1879 but diverted the music to his delightful Czech Suite.) In some respects, Dvořák’s serenades might be said to merge Mozart and Brahms, combining some of the simple freshness of the former with the lush Romanticism of the latter.
A Closer Look The Serenade for Strings is in five movements, most of them in an ABA form with contrasting middle sections. Dvořák’s enormous lyric gifts are immediately apparent in the opening Moderato, which has a dancelike middle section. The Tempo di valse offers a slow waltz and boldly modulating trio of a more melancholy nature. The lively Scherzo: Vivace brings humor to the piece. Loving lyricism returns in the Larghetto, which makes reference back to the second movement. The Finale: Allegro vivace is in a modified sonata form, departing from the ABA structures of the preceding movements, and provides a large-scale rounding off of the entire piece by bringing back the opening theme of the first movement before a fast and furious coda.
—Christopher H. Gibbs
Max Richter (born 1966): The Four Seasons Recomposed (2012)
Composer Max Richter is now part of Deutsche Grammophon’s acclaimed Recomposed series, in which contemporary artists are invited to re-work a traditional piece of music.
The idea of recomposing and re-processing musical works was common practice in Vivaldi’s time and the project presents an exciting opportunity to make favorite classics relevant to a wider audience. However, Richter’s approach differs fundamentally from the preceding releases: in contrast to previous participants, such as Matthew Herbert or Moritz von Oswald & Carl Craig, who reworked recordings from the extensive Deutsche Grammophon catalogue, Richter actually ‘recomposed’ Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons . He is the first in the series to employ an existing score, ‘inscribe’ his new composition into Vivaldi’s and record a ‘new’ version of a familiar work, thus creating a new hybrid work.
Like many composers Richter was always fascinated by Vivaldi’s 1725 composition because "The Four Seasons is an omnipresent piece of music and like no other part of our musical landscape’ But he was also aware of that for many, including himself, it had long ago ceased to be something of beauty and had instead become an ever present piece of muzak "You hear it in the supermarket regularly, you’re confronted with it in adverts or hear it as muzak when on hold. Slowly you begin to blank it out” Richter yearned to reconnect with the piece and to re-start the conversation on Vivaldi’s work, and he sought to do so in an accessible style that mirrored Vivaldi’s intentions with the piece, rather than to place a twentieth century Modernist imprint on it. "I wanted to open up the score on a note-by-note level, and working with an existing recording was like digging a mineshaft through an incredibly rich seam, discovering diamonds and not being able to pull them out. That became frustrating. I wanted to get inside the score at the level of the notes and in essence re-write it, re-composing it in a literal way.” In order to do this Richter wrote an entirely new score and recorded it with Daniel Hope and The Konzerthaus Kammerorchester in Berlin.
Richter calculates that, in the process, he has discarded around three-quarters of Vivaldi’s original. He opens with what he describes as "a dubby cloud which I’ve called Spring 0. It functions as a sort of prelude, setting up an electronic, ambient space for the first Spring movement to step into. I’ve used electronics in several movements, subtle, almost inaudible things to do with the bass, but I wanted certain moments to connect to the whole electronic universe that is so much part of our musical language today.” Other resonances are no less unexpected: Richter describes part of the first movement of his Summer as "heavy music for the orchestra. It’s relentless pulsed music, which is a quality that contemporary dance music has; and perhaps I was also thinking about John Bonham’s drumming. Then, in the second movement of Autumn I asked the harpsichordist Raphael Alpermann to play in what is a rather old-fashioned way, very regularly, rather like a ticking clock. That was partly because I didn’t want the harpsichord part to be attention-seeking, but also because that style connects to various pop records from the 1970s where the harpsichord or Clavinet was featured, including various Beach Boys albums and the Beatles’ Abbey Road.”
Clearly, Richter has brought his own frame of reference to the project. As he says, "Vivaldi’s music is made of regular patterns, and that connects with post-minimalism, which is one strand in the music that I write. That felt like a natural link, but even so it was surprisingly difficult to navigate my way through it. At every point I had to work out how much is Vivaldi and how much is me. It was difficult but also rewarding because the raw material is so fascinating.” Just as Richter’s Seasons plays tricks with the way we hear Vivaldi’s original, so it also asks questions of the soloist, Daniel Hope. "Violinists have Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons hardwired in their brain. Daniel is likely to play the original I don’t know how many times in a year, and for him to have my parallel text going on in another part of his brain is a challenge. I think he did a wonderful job. He brought to it a deep engagement with the original, but he was fully prepared to cut this new swathe through the text.”
Adapted from the booklet text for the Recomposed release, written by Nick Kimberley.