Carelessness? Classical "Orthodoxy"? Manufactured Coherence? -Some Thoughts on Dvorak's D Minor Quartet

Johannes Brahms may have accepted the dedication of Dvorak’s String Quartet in d minor, op. 34 (1877), but (in rather gentle manner for Brahms, when in a critical mood) wrote to Dvorak that when filling in the sharps and flats in his music he should take another look at the notes themselves, and noted (with implicit criticism) how quickly Dvorak composed.

Dvorak: The String Quartets,Performed by the Prague String Quartet: Jan Sirc,  Lubomir Maly,  Karel Pribyl,  Bretislav Novotny.

Dvorak: The String Quartets

Performed by the Prague String Quartet:

Jan Sirc, Lubomir Maly, Karel Pribyl, Bretislav Novotny.

String quartet No. 9, Op. 34 in d minor

begins with disc 6, track 5.

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Is this criticism fair?

Yes. Brahms is presumably not talking about typos, nor about egregiously wrong notes, but instead about the fact that Dvorak (and this discussion will be limited to the quartet) is willing to accept the plausible, the obvious, in place of the truly organic.

Paul Griffiths writes in his “The String Quartet-A History”:

“There were…features of Dvorak’s style that made the quartet an appropriate medium, notably his liking for presenting a melody first in one instrument then in another with a counter-melody added. But in writing quartets he must have been helped too by his long years of experience as a viola player, experience to which all his mature quartets bear witness in making the viola-not the cello as in Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann-the second soloist of the ensemble.”

The String Quartet/a History,by Paul Griffiths

The String Quartet/a History

by Paul Griffiths

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Griffiths is literally correct about Dvorak’s relationship to the medium, but his comments betray too great a respect for facility and idiomatic style for my taste. But he is consistent. His criticism of Brahms’s quartets centers on the seeming textural inadequacy of the medium to realize Brahms’s (presumably orchestral) musical thought. I like Griffiths’s book, but I disagree somewhat with his assessment of the appositeness of the respective styles of Brahms and Dvorak for the quartet medium. I also think he terribly underestimates Schumann’s op. 41 quartets, for similar reasons, but that’s another story. In any case, Wienawski or Sarasate or even Vivaldi weren’t the greatest composers of violin music, although Liszt may have been the greatest composer of piano music, per se.  Perhaps we should have the greatest respect for works that transcend the perceived physical limitations of their medium, like Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, to stay with quartet literature. 

Dvorak’s d minor quartet is a good, not a great work, precisely and exactly and assuredly because Brahms was right both in his general enthusiasm for Dvorak as well as in his gentle reproach. This quartet suffers in its outer movements from what I might call “manufactured coherence”. Case in point, the second subject of the first movement, whose first phrase is literally the second half of the first subject’s opening phrase, reharmonized in F Major.  Now there are critics who would congratulate themselves on discovering this, and congratulate Dvorak on his “organicism”.  I don’t buy it. It’s obvious, and therefore dull. Repetition is as overrated in musical form as consensus is in committee meetings. Another obvious and therefore dull bit of pseudo-organicism is the use of the triplet obligato that accompanies the main theme in its big structural repetition in the exposition as the decisive element in the coda. Plausible, certainly. Effective? Sure. Organic? Not really, because real development and transformation (which would be organic) doesn’t occur.

Another thing: it is well known that Dvorak loved Schubert and enjoys using Schubertian mediant chords, whether as modulatory levers or even as subsidary theme areas. So the development of the first movement begins in B Major. That’s alright, as far as it goes, it was about time to get out of the d minor/F Major orbit, but why B? Why not D-flat, for instance? Once again, plausible, reasonably effective, but not terribly organic. Consider by contrast Beethoven’s us of f-sharp minor in his Eighth Symphony, or F-Sharp Major in his Second. Or Schubert’s use of E-Flat Major in his String Quintet. And these are works Dvorak knew, presumably, and there are many other examples in any case. One rhythmic aspect in which Dvorak really missed the boat in this opening movement is failing to grasp that the turn subject in eighth notes in the principal themes (a-b-flat-a) lends itself superbly to hemiola. Turn the turn from straight eighth notes into a triplet, phrase in two beats within the 3/4 meter, and I think you’ve really got something, something akin to what Brahms achieves in the first movement of his rhytmically magisterial Second Symphony.  Another annoying thing about Dvorak’s movement (which it would be patently unfair to leave at Dvorak’s doorstep alone, because so many Romantics made the same mistake) is that he is apparently trying to “play by the book”; to impress Brahms, as Griffiths suggests, by composing an “orthodox” Classical sonata form. Since when are Haydn and Beethoven othodox! The idea that sonata form can be, or was, codified into a recipe is a big problem for some movements in Dvorak, as well as Schumann and even, occasionally, the later works of Mendelssohn.

The second and third movements are much, much better.  The second movement, a charming polka, is exactly the right replacement for Classical minuet or scherzo in the context of Dvorak’s style, and the slow movement (a big binary form with coda) is a marvelous study in textural variation, from the multiple stopping with mutes on, through the almost a la Hongroise repetition that even anticipates slightly the magnificent central episode of the slow movement in Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, to the wonderfully spacious octave oscillations that inform the coda.

The finale, alas, is again merely adequate. Apparently modelled on Schubert’s masterpiece, “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, this movement falls into a Schumann like rhythmic rut rather than achieving the halluncinatory intensity of Schubert’s terrifying tarantellas of death, in his d minor and G major quartets as well as in the c minor piano sonata.

“Natural” affinity for a medium is a gift that cuts both ways.