Life was brilliant for Dvořák in 1875 – he was happily married with a one-year-old son, and had just been awarded the prestigious Austrian State Prize for Composition, unknowingly judged by none other than Johannes Brahms, who saw great promise in this newly emerging composer. So full of ideas was he at this happy time in his life, it took him just two weeks to complete his Serenade for Strings, which remains one of his most popular works to this day.
Dvořák was a very prolific composer, writing for a wide array of different ensembles in his life; in the same year as he wrote his Serenade for String Orchestra, he also composed a piano trio, string quintet, his 5th Symphony and his Opera Vanda, among others, helped in part by societies and orchestras across Austria, Germany and the Republic of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic.) A commission in Vienna gave Dvořák the financial stability to begin work on the Serenade, which was premiered in Prague a year later before being published in 1877 as a piano duet, arranged by the composer. The string score was published, but it was a few years’ later on, and by a German publishing house based in Berlin.
The Serenade for Strings consists of five different movements in a rough arch form, meaning the first and last movements are linked, as are the second and fourth movements. The first movement, however, is in a simple ternary form, also referred to as ABA form, because a contrasting middle section bridges two similar sections either side. In this movement, the middle section is in the relative major – G major – and is defined by a new ascending dotted-rhythm idea, giving it a dance-like feel comparable to the Gavotte in Grieg’s Holberg Suite, also for String Orchestra.
The second movement is a Minuet and trio in the relative minor to the tonic – C# minor. These dances naturally fall into a similar ternary form, this time with a graceful trio in the tonic major, before returning to a shortened da capo (repeat) of the minuet, ending with a tierce de Picardie – a fancy way of saying ending with a bright, major chord at the end of a minor piece.
Another similar dance form follows – the lively Scherzo in F major, before the slow movement arrives – this is where the arch form becomes apparent, as motifs from the minuet and trio are brought back, this time in a much more gentle, tranquil setting.
Finally, Dvořák ends with a boisterous finale, using new melodic ideas, as well as material from the Larghetto slow movement, before the energy fades away to the final segment of the arch – the recap of the opening motif, with the familiar viola ostinato accompanying the second violin melody.
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