Josephine G. Winter Chamber Music Series


Chamber Music Series: Dvořák

Oskar Böhme – Sextet for Brass, Op. 30
Antonín Dvořák – Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81, B. 155

Friday, November 11, 2022 | 7:00 PM
First Presbyterian Church

Program Notes

Unless you are a devotee of trumpet music, it is likely that the name Oskar Böhme (1870-1938) is unfamiliar. Böhme was a German-born trumpet virtuoso in a family of trumpet players, including his father and two of his brothers. He was performing as a soloist while still in his teens and held positions in various European orchestras. His performing and teaching experiences led him to a position in Russia where he played with the prestigious Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, but it is during this period that the story of Oskar Böhme’s life and career takes a tragic turn. In the late-19th century Russian conservatories were actively recruiting German-trained musicians to help elevate the level of musicianship in Russia. Böhme accepted a position in 1897, along with a guarantee of Russian citizenship. This arrangement worked favorably for Böhme for many years; however, 20 years later circumstances in Russia changed dramatically with the political realignment of the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. By the 1930s Stalin’s desire to purge political dissent and opposition led to the exile, imprisonment, and execution of thousands of people, including expatriates living in the Soviet Union. In 1935, Böhme was forced to take a position in the remote Ural region of Orenburg, near Kazakhstan, where he was later tried on trumped up charges and executed in 1938.

Böhme is today most well-known for his set of 24 Études for Trumpet, still in use by aspiring trumpet players, as well as his Trumpet Concerto, op. 18 (1899), and the work performed here, the Trumpet Sextet in E-flat minor, op. 30 (1907). Böhme’s compositional style is solidly in the 19th century Romantic tradition. The music is based on traditional models of chamber music originating in the 18th century. Nonetheless, his use of brass instruments for this type of work is quite innovative and the result is a work that is both accessible and musically interesting. The instrumentation of the Sextet is somewhat unusual for brass ensemble, originally composed for four trumpets (including cornet and bass trumpet), trombone, and tuba. Contemporary performances often employ horn and bass trombone in lieu of bass trumpet and tuba. This relatively short work is in four movements, the first in a classical formal pattern with solemn introduction leading into the more lively main section. The second movement is a buoyant Scherzo and more lyrical Trio, evocative of the style of classical string chamber music. A somber slow movement follows, reminiscent of the first movement’s opening Adagio in mood and character. The work concludes with an energetic finale based on a recurring theme like the rondo form of many classical and 19th c. chamber works.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) is among the most popular of the great 19th-century European composers. His music is a distinctive blend of the mainstream and the marginal, meaning, he used the models of traditional Austro-Germanic composers of his day to carry the voice of a culture that was frequently dismissed and discounted. Cultural bias against Eastern European people created obstacles for composers who sought to elevate the dignity and beauty of their ethnic traditions, but by the mid-19th century, a movement among serious composers from outside the European mainstream had taken hold from Russia and Scandinavia to Bohemia. Dvořák is, along with Tchaikovsky, perhaps the most successful of these voices from the margins to leave a permanent mark on the European musical tradition. In Dvořák’s time it was unusual for a composer from Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) to include native musical and linguistic elements into their serious compositions for fear that their works would be rejected by publishers and audiences in major European capitals like Vienna, Berlin, and even Prague, which was politically dominated by Austria. It was also a time of political upheaval as various ethnic and nationalist factions began opposing such domination. Sympathy toward the disenfranchised ethnic groups began to be expressed in various forms of artistic media and Dvořák became a prominent musical figure in this movement. His works using texts in the Czech language and characteristic folk elements, such as his hugely successful Slavonic Dances helped catapult him to international success, eventually taking him to England and the United States.

Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, op. 81 is one of his best chamber works, and is in fact considered to be among the greatest works for piano and string quartet. There are at least two earlier examples of masterworks in this genre that have remained staples of the chamber repertoire: a much earlier work by Robert Schumann in E-flat (1842), and the Brahms Piano Quintet in F major, composed in 1864, more than 20 years before Dvořák’s. Interestingly, Schumann was largely responsible for launching the career of the younger Brahms. Twenty-four years later, Brahms would do much the same for Dvořák. Dvořák made an earlier attempt at composing a piano quintet in the same key in 1872. He was unhappy with the work and attempted to revise it though he was never satisfied with it. Perhaps inspired by the possibilities of the earlier attempt and the examples of Schumann and Brahms, Dvořák turned afresh to composing such a work, this time with magnificent results. The new quintet was completed in 1887 and successfully premiered in the following year. The work of a mature and confident composer, Dvořák’s Piano Quintet is brimming with the deep expression and Slavic character that are the hallmarks of his finest compositions. One could say that this work is in fact a kind of self-portrait, blending both the fluency of style and candor of expression that defined Dvořák both as a person and a musician.

The quintet is in the expected four-movement plan. The first movement, Allegro ma non tanto (fast but not too much), is expansive and impassioned with dramatic yet seamless contrasts. Echoes of Brahms may be detected here, but the often wistful character of the music, shifting freely between major and minor key, is characteristically Dvořák. The middle movements, the slow “Dumka” and the “Furiant” Scherzo, are his most overt references to Bohemian musical culture. The “Dumka” is a sectional folk song type, typically melancholy in character, believed to have originated in Ukraine. Here Dvořák alternates three contrasting musical sections into a large Rondo-like structure. The furiant is also an indigenous Bohemian dance type usually marked by shifts between triple and duple meter and was frequently paired with the dumka as a relief to the sorrowful character of the song. This furiant is marked Molto vivace (very lively) and can only be described as nothing less. The piano theme in the slower middle section provides the contrasting duple to the overriding triple feel of the outer sections. The quintet concludes with a movement of great intensity and lyricism with more than a nod to his predecessors, Schumann and Brahms, as the movement draws to its brilliant and masterful close. ©2022 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.