The True Meaning Of Dvorák’s Serenade For Strings
By Benjamin Pomerance
The boy was supposed to become a butcher. His father was a butcher, and all of his living male relatives were butchers, and all of his male ancestors stretching back to what seemed like the beginning of time had also been butchers. So, the future seemed as pre-ordained as the eldest prince becoming a king: Antonin Dvorak, first-born son of Anna and Frantisek Dvorak, would someday take his place as a butcher in Central Bohemia, too.
And if it weren’t for one particularly stubborn cow, the dutiful child likely would have followed his familial command. From an early age, Frantisek would bring him into the shop to teach him the various components of a butcher’s work. At first, the tasks were basic, like sweeping the floor. But the day soon came when Frantisek decided that his son was ready for the more complicated aspects of this trade. Thus began the frequent walks to local markets to select prize livestock, returning home with the animals that they would eventually slaughter for meat.
Finally, graduation day arrived. For the first time, Antonin’s father told the boy to go to the village fair and pick out a cow on his own. Following all of the criteria that Frantisek had taught him, Antonin made his choice. Yet complacency obviously wasn’t an item on his father’s checklist, for as Antonin led the animal homeward with a rope, the cow suddenly decided that it had other ideas. Kicking and mooing, the recalcitrant bovine started lumbering in the opposite direction. Antonin hung onto the rope for dear life — until the cow dragged the boy into a lake.
Bursting into tears, the shivering and embarrassed child made a vow on that day in the middle of that frigid water. No matter what his father said or did, Antonin Dvorak would never, ever, ever, ever become a butcher.
He already knew what career would replace it. For there was another trait, one that seemed far less dangerous than butchering, which ran through practically every member of the Dvorak family: an intuitive musicality that allowed them to pick up virtually any instrument and understand how to make it sing. Antonin already had followed in these footsteps, a wizard on the violin who was constantly in demand at village dances. Music, and the attention that it brought, was far more enjoyable than carving up animals. He would become a musician.
But his father had other ideas. He was a gifted musician himself, an ace player of a bohemian string instrument called the zither. Yet music was only a pastime, a way to release the tensions after a hard day’s work or to show off to the girls at a dance. Surely, his son would never be able to make enough money to survive if he did nothing other than playing music.
The impasse steadily built between father and son. Finally, a tiebreaker arrived from the unlikeliest of circumstances. Business began declining at Frantisek’s beloved butcher shop, eventually driving him to the brink of bankruptcy. The problem, he decided, was the small size of their village. Seeking more customers, he moved with his family to the far larger town of Zlonice. Here, they could stay with relatives until returning to financial stability.
As luck would have it, Zlonice was also the home of Antonin Liehmann, one of the most gifted musicians in all of Bohemia. One day, Liehmann heard young Antonin Dvorak reeling off some virtuosic passages on his violin. Awestruck, he inquired about the boy’s parents. When he learned that the child was the son of the newest butcher in town, he tracked down Frantisek and Anna, insisting that they permit him to give music lessons to their son. Shocked but pleased, they accepted Liehmann’s offer.
Liehmann did more than teach Antonin some new tricks on the violin. He provided detailed instruction in composition as well, encouraging the boy to write original works. He also trained Antonin to play the organ, an instrument that he learned even faster than he had picked up the violin. Here, for the first time, was a legitimate pathway to a steady job. The land was filled with churches, and the churches needed organists for their services. It sounded promising enough that Frantisek even finally abandoned his dream of his son becoming a butcher.
Still, Antonin’s challenges were only beginning. Unable to afford tuition at the finest music schools, he ended up going to the Institute for Church Music in Prague, an institution with fine professors but terribly dilapidated facilities. After graduating in July 1859, he had barely a penny to his name. Only the kindness of relatives — first a cousin, then his father’s youngest sister — who allowed him to stay in their apartments in Prague kept him off the city’s streets.
For a while, the only job that he could find was a meager-paying post with a local orchestra that played frivolous programs at dances. Much of his time during this period was spent in a vicious cycle: work feverishly at creating a new work of music, complete the piece, look it over, decide that the entire composition was trash, rip all of the pages to shreds, and start again. With no intact works to offer to a publisher, the process wasn’t exactly a formula for financial success.
At last, he finished a piece that passed his own muster, a three-movement string quartet in A-minor. This time, though, the outside world rebuffed him. Antonin would never hear his first opus in a concert hall, as no quartet agreed to perform it until seventeen years after his death and no publisher agreed to print it until 1943 — more than eight decades after he had composed it. A second string quartet, this one written in the sunnier key of A-Major, likewise lay in obscurity for decades. His next attempt was a symphony, a massive work that no orchestra would touch.
Another failure awaited in the opera house. His first operatic score, Alfred, was ignored by directors and never performed during his lifetime. When his second opera, King and Collier, was returned to him by the conductor at Prague’s Provisional Theatre and deemed to be too difficult to play, one can only imagine that Antonin was wondering whether it was too late to become a butcher after all.
Instead, he re-wrote the entire opera and sent it back to the conductor. This time, the orchestra liked it. The singers liked it, too. And when it premiered in the Provisional Theatre, the audience members loved it. Buoyed by this victory, Antonin developed another large-scale work, a heavily patriotic composition for choir and orchestra titled The Heirs of the White Mountain. After its first performance in 1873, the crowd went crazy, and the music critics offered rave reviews. At the age of 32, Antonin Dvorak finally had scored his first major musical success.
Still, he was unknown outside of Prague. Desperate to change this anonymity, he took aim at a lofty goal: the Austrian State Prize, offered to “talented composers in need.” His submission in 1874 consisted of an extraordinary fifteen works, including two symphonies and a song cycle. After scrutinizing this extraordinary body of work, the jurors — one of whom was Johannes Brahms, who was reportedly “visibly overcome” with emotion upon reviewing these compositions — granted Antonin the award.
The timing was perfect. In 1873, Antonin had married. He and his wife, Anna, had celebrated the birth of their first child the following year. The substantial cash award that came with the Austrian State Prize was just what the composer needed to help provide for his fledgling family. Even more importantly, the prestige of the prize ensured that leading European publishers, conductors, composers, and performers would learn his name for the first time.
And then the floodgates opened. As if two boulders had been lifted from his shoulders, Antonin began creating music at a blistering pace. Practically everything that poured from his pen during this period was a success. In 1875 alone, his output included his first piano trio, his first piano quartet, his second published string quartet, his fifth symphony, his opera Vanda, his Moravian Duets, and his Nocturne in B-Major — and, after only twelve days of labor, his Serenade for Strings.
Of the fruits from this prolific year, it is the Serenade that provides the most uninhibited look at the composer’s mood at that time. From start to finish, the work breathes optimism and joy, a sense of springtime bursting forth at the end of a long winter. The waltz lilts with pleasure, the scherzo leaps with whimsy, the larghetto sings with passion, and the finale dances to the type of folk tune that Antonin would have played on his violin as a kid in that small Central Bohemia village, discovering that his hands were meant for something other than a butcher’s knife.
In retrospect, the picture is hard to grasp. Virtually every commentator today ranks Dvorak in history’s highest echelon, placing him without question alongside all of Western music’s other household names. Musicologists can easily rattle off the virtues of his most celebrated works: the seventh, eighth, and ninth symphonies, the opera Rusalka, the second cello concerto, the “American” string quartet, the Slavonic dances. With such a burnished reputation, it is hard to imagine such a person ever struggling to gain acceptance from audiences.
But when listening to Serenade For Strings, this is not the man to remember. Instead, to grasp this piece fully, one should think not of that revered historical figure but of a newlywed named Antonin, emerging for the first time from an odyssey of doubt and discouragement into the front lines of his craft. From such a man, the unbridled joy of this composition makes perfect sense, a celebratory sense of relief of an artist who had at last found his foothold in the field where he had always known he belonged.
Hear the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra perform Dvorák’s “Serenade For Strings” on Sunday, March 18 at 3 p.m. in the GE Theater at Proctors in Schenectady, NY.
For tickets and more information, call (518) 346-6204 or visit www.schenectadysymphony.org.