Dumky Trio, Opus 90 (1891) Antonín Dvořák (b. near Prague, 1841; d. Prague, 1904)

The early 1890s were a hectic time for Dvořák. His fame was growing, and one accolade followed another. In June 1889, he was awarded the Austrian Order of the Iron Crown; the following February the Prague Artistic Society fêted him with a banquet. He was elected to the Czech Academy of Sciences. The rest of the world took notice. On November 17, 1890, he learned that England’s Cambridge University wished to award him an honorary doctorate. In all the hubbub, Dvořák wrote one of his czechiest works, the Dumky Trio.

The Trio was composed between November 1890 and February 12 1891. Its premiere took place at a celebration in Dvořák’s honor on April 11 that year, as another honorary degree—this time from the University of Prague—was conferred upon him. The performers were Ferdinand Lachner, violin and Hanus Wihan, cello, with Dvořák at the piano. The three toured Bohemia early in 1892, playing over forty (!) concerts, with the Dumky on each one. Just as Dvořák was due in Cambridge for commencement, a telegram had arrived from a Mrs. Thurber in the U.S., inviting him to head her newly-founded National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Dvořák and family left their home at Vysoká on September 10, 1892. After a few days in Prague, they headed to Bremen and steamed off to the New World.

In this last piano trio, which is sometimes called Trio No. 4, Dvořák avoids sonata form altogether. He turns instead to a folk genre native to the Ukraine, the country on the other side of Slovakia. A dumka is a folk-song of narrative or elegiac character with vivid swings of mood and tempo—now slow and sad, now fast and joyful—a song and dance that expresses the volatile Slavic temperament. Dumky is the plural form of dumka. Dvořák had first used the title in 1876 in his piano Dumka, Opus 35, but there are also dumky in the String Sextet, Opus 48, the String Quartet, Opus 51, and the slow movement of the beloved Piano Quintet.  Dvořák also abandoned the traditional unity of key in a chamber work, choosing instead a succession of keys leading from E minor to C minor. So it makes little sense to say it’s “in E minor.” One could call it “6 Pieces in the form of Dumky,” but we’ll refer to it simply as the Dumky Trio. 

There are six movements, but it feels like a four-movement work, for the first two are connected, and there is a long pause after No. 4. We get a sense of Dvořák’s method when mournful, arching sixths in the violin are moved to the cello and accompanied by giddy, major-mode cascades. In the slow walking music of No. 2, we are reminded of Dvořák’s kinship with Schubert. After placid chords at the beginning of No. 3, piano introduces a slender melody with the right hand alone—a most unusual texture—then that slow theme morphs into a vivace dance. The piano writing is frequently brilliant, highlighting the top of the keyboard and leaving the middle register uncluttered for the singing strings. But just as striking is the slow descent to the bottom of the instrument near the end of No. 3.

The score of the Dumky Trio was published by Simrock of Berlin in 1894. Dvořák’s friend Brahms read the proofs for the composer, who was in America. That Brahms would function as Dvořák’s proofreader on a trio is notable, and attests to their friendship. That he would also proof the three tone poems (In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello), the “New World” Symphony, the “American” Quartet and the E-flat major String Quintet is frankly astonishing. Brahms’s willingness to take on such an arduous, time-consuming task on behalf of a composer eight years his junior can only be interpreted as a token of respect and a labor of love.  

The friendship between Dvořák and Brahms was enduring, secured by affection and mutual regard. They had much in common. Both were thoroughly middle class, born on the lower end of the scale and rising through life to attain professional status as an independent composer. Both were situated squarely in the Viennese classical tradition, at home with symphonic forms and chamber music. And they were both avid consumers of music. Their differences were few, but basic: Dvořák was a family man; Brahms a bachelor; Dvořák was Catholic, Brahms Protestant. Dvořák wrote eleven operas, Brahms none at all. 

Dvořák scholar David Beveridge notes that although the two lived in different cities, their relationship was sustained by Dvořák’s occasional visits to Vienna and a playful, increasingly intimate correspondence over twenty years, ending only with the death of Brahms in 1897. It began in 1874, when Dvořák applied for a grant from the Austrian government fund “for poor but talented artists,” adjudicated by a committee on which Brahms served for three years. The grant yielded not just money, but through Brahms’s advocacy, publication.

Brahms responded to what he often called the “merry” tone of Dvořák’s work, frequently praising his friend’s industry and inventiveness to friends. “I rejoice in his cheerful creations,” he told Simrock after proofing the stack of American works. Of the Cello Concerto, Brahms famously remarked: “Had I known such a cello concerto as that could be written, I could have tried to compose one myself!” Dvořák, faithful to the end, was a pallbearer at Brahms’s funeral.

Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, Opus 100, D. 929 (1828) Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

In a detailed 1894 article for The Century Magazine, Dvořák acknowledged his debt to Schubert: “[His] chamber music, especially his string quartets and his trios, must be ranked among the very best of their kind in all musical literature. . . . Schubert does not try to give his chamber music an orchestral character, yet he attains a marvelous variety of beautiful tonal effects. Here, as elsewhere, his flow of melody is spontaneous, incessant and irrepressible.” 

Schubert was late in coming to the piano trio, but at the end of his life he wrote two monumental ones. The Trio No. 2 was sketched in November 1827, possibly presented at a Schubertiade on January 28, 1828, and premiered publicly on March 26, 1828 at the only public concert Schubert ever devoted to his own music. The date was a year to the day after Beethoven’s death in March 1827. Schubert engaged three of Vienna’s leading musicians to play the trio: violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (who had introduced many of Beethoven’s quartets), pianist Karl Maria von Bocklet and cellist Josef Linke. And this is indeed music for pros. In his biography of Schubert, Brian Newbould describes it as “a state of the art product of Schubert at the height of his powers, running the gamut of expression from joyful affirmation to rapt meditation.” 

Violent contrasts characterize the first movement. After an athletic, triadic theme, the most important idea of the first theme-group turns out to be cello’s three-note rocking figure followed by a skip. Piano offers a pianissimo second subject in characteristically clear Schubertian octaves. It brightens from minor to major mode over a persistent boom-chicka-chicka, boom-chicka-chicka rhythm. But in the development major mode keeps slipping into minor. One has the sense of withering hopes. Dvořák notes in his article on Schubert this Slavic trait “which he was the first to introduce prominently into art-music.”

Way leads on to way in the Andante con moto, which treads a Winterreise path, as cello sets out a melancholy walking tune. Bard College’s Christopher Gibbs has found its origin in a Swedish song, “Se solen sjunker” (See the setting sun), by Isaak Albert Berg. Note the descending octave leap near the end of the melody. In Berg’s song, the words here are “Farewell, farewell.” But from the tail of that theme violin proposes a bright new idea with the same rhythm. One of the things that endears Schubert to us is his ability to convey such fine shades of emotion and modulate between them. 

The Scherzo is a Ländler, of which Schubert wrote hundreds. This one is a canon, at first strict, later not so.

The Finale begins in the sun, but by quick turns the weather becomes shadowy, then torrential. One is not prepared by the return of the cello theme from the Andante, a device Beethoven had used to great effect in his Fifth Symphony. This expansive movement was originally even longer. (Dvořák: “He does not know when to stop.”) In that form, it was rejected by publisher Schott. Two cuts were approved by Schubert and incorporated into the first edition, which was published by Probst. “Let it be performed the first time by proficient musicians,” he wrote to that publisher, “and see that particularly in the last piece an even tempo is maintained when the rhythm changes.” Prof. Gibbs has suggested that the Trio in E-flat is Schubert’s Tombeau de Beethoven. Schubert himself would be dead within the year.

Program notes © 2019 by David Evan Thomas