What a difference a century makes. Two superb string quintets, one from the 18th century (Boccherini), and the other from the 19th. Same format, same instruments, but they are as different as chalk is from cheese. What happened, why so dissimilar? Beethoven, that’s what happened. He took the classical forms and styles bequeathed to him by Haydn and Mozart at the turn of the 19th century and injected them with a range of expressiveness and rhythmic energy not known to his predecessors. Whereas the 18th century classicalists wrote to please their wealthy conservative patrons, Beethoven wrote to express himself, the self-important high and mighty be damned. He was a one-man bridge from the classicalists to the 19th century Romantics. Beethoven left the 18th century’s galante style in his rearview mirror, paving the way for future composers including Dvořák.
Boccherini’s and Dvořák’s backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Boccherini came from a thoroughly musical family. Dvořák was the son of a butcher who was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Fortunately, Dvořák’s uncle spotted the boy’s talent, and after a battle with Dvořák’s stubborn father, Antonin was allowed to leave the butcher block behind and go to Prague to study music. A few years later, he was discovered – impoverished and laboring in obscurity – by Johannes Brahms, who took Dvořák under his wing and became his mentor.
Dvorak’s music was influenced by the beloved folk music of his homeland. He believed that great art music must grow from the healthy soil of mature folk music. He became the champion of Czech music, fluently and effortlessly melding the folk sounds of his people into updated 18th century classical forms. He was quickly identified as a “nationalist composer”, a style much in vogue in Europe between 1850-1900.
This prize-winning quintet is absolute music. It has no extramusical program or references. Full of drive and drama, it exhibits a fresh rhythmic vitality that in the fast movements is propulsive in nature, evoking the vibrant folk dance music of his native land. Dvořák’s technical skill, his mastery of form, and his clever ability to develop a musical idea are much in evidence. His use of the double bass is particularly notable.
Come to think of it, the repertoire of chamber music is awash in string quartets, and many string quintets, but very few of the quintets feature the double bass. Strange given the added range and sonority a double bass adds to the sound. Could it be because the bulky double bass is hard to lug around (which is why I took up the mandolin)? Indeed, by the time Dvořák wrote his last string quintet 18 years later, the bass was gone, replaced by a second viola. Maybe the change was because the viola was his instrument, the way Luigi’s was the cello. Do you think?