Serenade: the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD The Music part 3

Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904)
Serenade for Winds and Strings in D-minor, Op.44 (1878)
Few composers have emerged from humbler circumstances than Dvorák---the son of an innkeeper who kept a butcher shop, and at one point apprenticed his son. Fortunately the young Antonin's musical talent not only had been apparent from a young age, but his simple parents saw the wisdom in nurturing its development. Fortunate for posterity as well, the maturing composer recognized a deep artistic wisdom: Shaking off the infectious Wagner bug sweeping musical Europe, Dvorák trusted his instincts to mine the rich melodic treasures of his own country for lifelong inspiration.

The Festival artists perform the Dvorák Serenade.

The Serenade, Op.44 dates from just after the time Dvorák's early works had become known to the most influential critic of the day, Eduard Hanslick---and, more important, to Johannes Brahms, who was catalytic in linking the obscure Dvorák to Brahms's own publisher, Simrock. The Serenade fits the stereotype of having been created in a fit of inspiration, composed entirely in two weeks in January 1878. Brahms wrote to his close friend, the preeminent violinist Joseph Joachim: "A more lovely, refreshing impression of real, rich and charming creative talent you can't easily have...I think it must be a pleasure for the wind players!"

Brahms was right on the mark; the work captures an outdoorsy feeling in a thoroughly nonspecific way, and if we could not identify with any certainty whether Dvorák had quoted any indigenous melodies, we would still feel certain that this music is part and parcel of the Bohemian region. And, like Mozart's works in this genre a century before, the title "Serenade" belies the compelling you-must-sit-up-and-listen beauty of the piece. Dvorák's choices of instrumentation result in a dark, burnished sound that seems to create a sonic woodland. The absence of flutes makes the sonority all the more deep and throaty, but no less so than the addition of a single cello and bass to anchor the two bassoons and contrabassoon.

The opening Moderato, quasi marcia is based on the kind of march that traveling bands employed to announce their arrival in a village, with a middle section that contrasts a flowing melody with the returning march. The second movement is marked Minuetto (Tempo di minuetto), and while the main section has that kind of stateliness to it, the melody begins with a rhythmic inflection that clearly hints at a folksy origin. In fact, the movement is modeled after a sousedská or "neighbor's dance," a more sedate alternative for the older folk no longer inclined to stomp out the furiants Dvorák often used in place of scherzo movements.

The Andante con moto is a slow movement that immediately reminds us that Dvorák ranks with Schubert and anyone else you care to name when it comes to vying for the title of greatest melodist. In this case the sublime tune unfolds first against a pulsing syncopation; later it is propelled by downward scales of sixteenth notes. The Finale (Allegro molto) fairly explodes with energy, achieving a near-orchestral power at times, until a return of the opening march hints that the little band must go on to the next town.