String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor,
JB 1:105 (From My Life)
(arr. Szell for Orchestra)
Bedřich Smetana (1824 to 1884)
Bedřich Smetana was a Czech composer who wrote during the latter decades of the 19th century, with his artistic sensibility firmly rooted in the liberal, even radical sensibilities that dominated Prague and Bohemia in the mid-to-late 19th century. At its 1878 premiere in Prague, one of the violinists performing Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 was Antonín Dvořák. The piece itself is a four-movement chamber composition experts say was both a political meditation about Smetana’s own contradictions, as an ethnic Czech living — and composing — during the height of the Austro- Hungarian empire. Smetana was a musical prodigy but at the same time, someone who grew up having to fight to gain acceptance among the elite. He was an outsider whose patrons were likely imperialistic insiders. He also contracted syphilis at age 50, which led to complete deafness a few years later. Sadly, his work was very much inspired by trying to work through a number of sad events in his own personal life: his daughter’s death inspired one piece, Piano Trio in G Minor, while his wife’s death was said to be the inspiration behind the second movement of String Quartet No. 1.
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 to 1921)
In an art form that likes them to start young, Camille Saint-Saëns was an earlier riser than almost anyone. Born in Paris in 1821, Saint-Saëns’ first song was composed at the age of three, and he publicly performed a Ludwig van Beethoven violin sonata at four. Saint-Saëns made his official public debut at the age of 10, performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Beethoven. Of Saint- Saëns, one critic — Harold Schonberg of the New York Times wrote: “It is not generally realized that he was the most remarkable child prodigy in history, and that includes Mozart.” Cello Concerto No. 1 premiered in early January 1873, performed by a cellist and instrument maker named Auguste Tolbecque. While he wrote Cello Concerto No. 1 during a period of musical experimentation — the 1870s — Saint-Saëns was a composer who treasured classical lines and melody, which earned the ire of some contemporary critics of the day, who did not approve of his old-school ways. As Saint-Saëns himself once wrote, “An artist who does not feel a deep sense of personal satisfaction with elegant lines, harmonious colors or a perfect progression of chords has no comprehension of true art.”
A Hero’s Song, Op. 111, B. 199
Antonín Dvořák (1841 to 1904)
Antonín Dvořák wrote A Hero’s Song in the summer of 1897. It has been noted for containing more autobiographical leanings than other Dvořák compositions, so what was happening in his life in 1897? Two big things: one, his daughter Otilie married his student, Joseph Tuk. And two, his friend and mentor, Johannes Brahms, died in April of 1897. In 1896, Brahms tried to convince Dvořák, who had just returned to Europe from several years of living in the United States, in New York and Iowa, to come to live in Vienna — and offered to finance all of it, as he had no other family to spend his money on. Dvořák was deeply touched by Brahms’ offer, but said he could never live anywhere but his beloved Bohemia, where he was born and grew up. The hero in the title is not however a soldier. It’s more a reference to an artist, or a traveling ‘bard’. It’s been described as a ‘symphonic poem’ written within the framework of a four-movement symphony. It was Dvořák’s last orchestral work and the final of his five symphonic poems. It’s said to not tell a story but to tell two distinctly different moods: despair and triumph.
Program notes by Stephen Hunt © 2023