Dvořák String Sextet, opus 48

Reprintable only with permission from the author.

Dvořák String Sextet, opus 48

In 1878, when Antonin Dvořák composed his String Sextet, the thirty-something composer was entering his prime and just starting to be recognized internationally; this is the Dvořák of the Wind Serenade, the Stabat Mater, and the first set of Slavonic Dances. In the Sextet one can hear a mastery of long form, a sureness of voice, and yet there is also a sense of a still-young composer who is eager to experiment, to reach beyond traditional structure and try out new flavors and ideas.

The genre of the string sextet, birthed by Johannes Brahms just a few years earlier, extends the sound of the standard string quartet to a deeper, richer tint by the addition of a second viola and a second cello. Dvořák uses this sound to lovely effect in the opening of the first movement, weaving a texture of patient, reminiscent melancholy that evokes an old pipe organ in a country church. Already experimenting, he tries an approach in this movement where, instead of giving each of his two themes a separate lengthy section, as would be standard procedure, he alternates them more tightly, so that they recur around each other in a kind of negotiation, the sighing, singing first melody against the nimble, dancing second one. Across its rather ambitious length, this movement continually trends towards the brighter, more energetic side of things, but it is the opening material, with its deeply nostalgic character, that stays with us when all is said and done.

The second movement is a “Dumka”, a concept that came out of Ukraine. The word dumka in Ukrainian literally means “thought” or “idea”, and in its musical form was a lamenting kind of ballad. In Dvořák’s hands, the form took on a very particular flavor: an expression of gentle melancholy that alternates with brighter, more hopeful passages, smiling through its tears, dancing in the midst of sorrow. To the composer, there was something ineffably Slavic about holding the bright and the dark in balance with each other, and he returned to his own version of Dumka over and over, most famously in his “Dumky” Trio, which consists of six Dumka movements in a row. In the sextet, Dvořák utters his Dumka phrases in 5-bar lengths, rather than the more symmetrical and traditional 4 bars, which gives an easy, rambling comfort to the narrative, a grandmother unfolding her tale in her own good time.

The third movement is another Slavic form: a Furiant, an exuberant and uplifting triple-meter dance. In this case, Dvořák keeps both the material and the spacing comically simple, good-humored, repetitious just for the sheer fun of it. Despite the slightly gentler middle section, there are no shadows here, just flirtation, the dance, and a few oafish grunts from the low instruments at the very end.

In the final movement, Dvořák pays a kind of homage to Beethoven. The older composer was fond, when it came to last movements, of choosing a theme and variations, often with a calm, measured opening — in his “Harp” Quartet, his “Eroica” Symphony, his late piano sonatas. Here Dvořák offers a variations movement with a viola solo as its theme, graceful but sultry. In a nod, perhaps, to Beethoven’s Heilige Dankgesang, Dvořák uses a “modal” approach to harmony here: that is, he straddles the knife-edge between two keys, clinging to B minor while seeming to long for A major. Each section then finally relents and comes to rest in the latter key. The movement winds through many variations in different characters — meandering, sparkling, gloomy, menacing. Always there is the feeling of ambivalence, of mulling the problem of the two key centers. This dilemma finally loosens in the final section, a Stretta, or “squeezing” passage, where the B minor material starts to sparkle, effervesce, and finally explode in an A major version of itself. The original problem is now tossed playfully around the group, a game of hot potato, escalating yet further to a frantic Presto — can the second violin really play that fast? — before reaching an emphatic, stamping conclusion.

Note by Misha Amory