Born in the Czech village of Nelahozeves on the banks of Vltava River just north of Prague, Antonin Dvořák pursued an intense love of music from the very beginning. His father owned an inn, and Antonin would spend a considerable portion of his youth investing his musical passions in the study of the violin. He would play his beloved instrument for the patrons of the inn, and frequently accompanied the music-making at local dances. His father, a zither player, was a butcher in addition to his duties as an innkeeper, and it was expected that his son would follow in his footsteps. But young Antonin had such a natural talent for music that his father had a change of heart and encouraged the young boy to pursue his passions.
At the age of 12, Antonin moved to Zlonice to live with an aunt and uncle and to begin studying harmony, piano, and organ. It was during this three year period that Dvorak would pen his earliest polkas. One of the music teachers Dvorak studied with during this time hastily wrote to the boy’s father, insisting that Antonin be enrolled at the Institute for Church Music in Prague. Antonin’s father agreed, and after Dvořák completed a two-year course at the Institute, he played the viola in various inns and with theatre bands to make ends meet, in addition to setting up a modest private studio.
In the 1860’s, Dvořák fell on hard times. He could barely afford the paper required to write his music, and his hectic work schedule left little time for composition. Even with the odds stacked against him, the young composer was able to pen two symphonies, numerous songs, works for chamber orchestra, and an opera…all while remaining virtually unknown. His passion for the music of iconic Romantic composers such as Beethoven and Schubert are clear in his early works, and as his compositions matured they began to be increasingly influenced by the styles of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.
Dvořák tutored several students throughout the 1860s, two of which were the sisters Josefina and Anna Čermáková. Antonin’s love for the elder sister went unrequited, but Anna took an interest in the musician and the two soon became inseparable. They were married in November 1873 and endured several years of hardship as Antonin struggled to get his career as a composer established. Everything changed in 1875, when Dvořák was awarded a state grant by the Austrian government that enabled him to pursue composition full-time. This turn of events also afforded him the exposure necessary to make the acquaintance of the Red Hedgehog himself, Johannes Brahms. They developed a lasting friendship, with Brahms offering the occasional piece of compositional advice and connecting Dvořák with influential publisher Fritz Simrock (whose firm would go on to publish Antonin’s “Moravian Duets” and his sensational “Slavonic Dances”).
After reorchestrating Slavonic Dances for the orchestra in 1878, Dvořák composed a piece of music which he dedicated to well-known Czech music critic Louis Ehlert (to express gratitude for the high praise Ehlert gave his “Slavonic Dances” to all who would listen). This piece of music, his Serenade in D minor, would come to represent a high point in Dvořák’s prolific compositional output. Originally composed for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and three French horns, Dvořák added optional contrabassoon, cello, and double bass after the work’s first performance. Divided into four movements, the Serenade begins with a Moderate quasi-March before breezing through a Minuetto to develop by way of an invigorating Andante and Allegro movement that gives way to a breathtaking Finale.
The first movement’s quasi-March begins in D minor, and it is immediately apparent just how profoundly the folk music of Czechoslovakia impacted Dvořák’s compositional style. The first theme is sounded, and echoes three more times with the first oboe featured as the soloistic voice throughout. The cello and double bass bring forth unison octaves with the bassoons to create a harmonic breadth that is warm and captivating . The second movement, Minuetto, takes the form of a minuet and trio. The minuet portion of this movement plays out in ternary (ABA) form, and its delicate nature builds to a unique and wholly Czechoslovakian take on the concept of a trio. Throughout these three sections, Dvořák relied primarily on traditional Czech dance forms as his inspiration. The first section of the trio is based on a dance referred to as the “dumka”. Translated in English as “thought”, the dumka finds its origins in folk ballads and laments, and this dance possesses a contrasting grouping of melancholy and lively sections. Dvořák’s dumka repeatedly switches from major to minor keys throughout this first section to alternate between these two emotional states. The second section of the trio, the “furiant”, is well-known in Czech folk music as a fast dance that makes effective use of a hemiola rhythm. Boasting an odd phrase structure, the furiant gives way to a recap of the dumka before transitioning to the third movement.
In the Andante, a persistent motor rhythm in the French horns and cello drive the pace forward, while clarinet and oboe delight in a shared melody above. Expressed in A major (the dominant key for this work) the Andante and Allegro makes full use of the expressive capabilities of both cello and bass. The final movement proudly enters with a forte unison line in all instrumental voices before beginning four major themes in sequence. The first of these is an opening statement in D minor, and we get a taste of the dumka and furiant once more before the piece ends in a flourish of fortissimo triplets (brought forth with tremendous effect by the horns!). The Finale culminates in a fortissimo D major chord played by the full ensemble.
Dvořák’s Serenade in D minor was first heard on 17 November 1878 at a concert exclusively dedicated to Antonin’s works, performed by the orchestra of the Prague Provisional Theatre under the composer’s baton. In that same year, Dvořák’s wife Anna would give birth to the first of six healthy children. Despite past rejections, Antonin remained close with Anna’s older sister Josefina (who married Count Václav Kounic and settled in the small village of Vysoká). The Dvořáks would purchase a house in Vysoká soon afterward, and Antonin would go on to write some of his most prolific works as they spent their remaining summers together in the clear Bohemian air: A fitting retirement for a composer who created one of the most influential Wind Serenades in the history of music.