Antonín Dvořák wrote his second Piano Quartet in 1889 after several years of urging from his publisher, Fritz Simrock of Berlin. Writing a piece for publication first, rather than for a specific performance, is a clear indication of Dvořák’s international stature at the time: there was public demand for his music, and his publisher saw money.
This was quite a change from 12 years earlier, when the influential Brahms introduced Dvořák to Simrock, writing, “I have enjoyed works sent in by Antonín Dvořák (pronounced Dvorschak) of Prague.… He is a very talented man. Moreover, he is poor!” Simrock accepted a set of songs and soon commissioned more works. At first, Dvořák made his reputation on the Czech character of his music, which was fresh to German ears and praised, for example by Brahms, for its “piquancy.” But anti-Slavic sentiment grew among the Viennese public in the 1880s, as debates about language and ethnicity snarled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dvořák began to sense that his music was less welcome in the musical capital, and for a time tamped down his Bohemian style while also seeking friendlier audiences on tours to Berlin and London. The Piano Quartet in E-flat arrived at the end of this period, showing the influence of Brahms and the cultivation of a more “neutral” Germanic style. Soon Dvořák would reintegrate his Czech voice, at first some- what smoothed and abstracted, and then more strongly in a late set of symphonic poems and operas inspired by Czech poetry and folklore.
Perhaps because it foils preconceptions about what Dvořák’s music should sound like, the Piano Quartet No. 2 is often overlooked among his chamber music, overshadowed especially by the grand Piano Quintet in A Major (1887) and the “Dumky” Trio (1891). But the E-flat quartet is masterfully written and full of surprises—and it reveals something of Dvořák’s essential essence through the things that remain the same despite the departure in style.
The opening Allegro begins with the three string instruments in pure octaves answered by a bright piano entrance that then begins to brood. The writing is often bass-heavy with a foundation of low piano and cello, but then Dvořák seizes a big range with violin high above, like a painter using all the space on a tall canvas. In the middle section, propulsive dotted rhythms and an incessant falling motif confirm some Dvořákian constants. The coda is also striking, with a shimmering tremolo version of the opening theme.
The slow movement, Lento, is set dreamily in the uncommon key of G-flat major, which gives the strings a fuzzy, covered quality. The movement loosely connects a succession of different melodies, as if in free association, picking up dramatically with an impassioned climax and then segueing to a new lilting theme. The sequence repeats, and then vanishes in an effervescent finish.
A labyrinthine scheme of triple-time dances makes up the third movement. The first dance is a folksy waltz; the second is set in the harmonic minor scale, often associated with Middle Eastern music. The next theme is also modally inflected, giving a general sense of foreignness, and the falling motif from the first movement reappears. The next dance mimics a hammered dulcimer (one remaining central-European touch), and a tremolo intrusion gives way to a trio section (Un pochettino più mosso). Finally the dances repeat.
Like the opening, the Finale opens with a steely unison, which then finds an energetic clip. A warm viola solo comes around twice, and the end firmly plants its feet with a low-voiced resolution.