Piano Trio No 4 in E minor ‘Dumky’

Composer: Antonin Dvořák (b. 1841 - d. 1904)
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Composer: Antonin Dvořák (b. 1841 - d. 1904)

Performance date: 01/07/2023

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Duration: 00:28:19

Recording Engineer: Gar Duffy, RTÉ

Instrumentation: vn, vc, pf

Instrumentation Category:Piano Trio

Artists: Trio Gaspard - [vn, vc, pf]

Piano Trio No 4 in E minor ‘Dumky’

  1. Lento maestoso – Allegro quasi doppio movimento – Lento maestoso – Allegro
  2. Poco adagio – Vivace non troppo – Poco adagio – Vivace
  3. Andante – Vivace non troppo – Andante – Allegretto
  4. Andante moderato (quasi tempo di marcia) – Allegretto scherzando – Tempo1 – Allegro – Tempo1 
  5. Allegro
  6. Lento maestoso – Vivace – Lento – Vivace

Antonín Dvořák completed the E minor Piano Trio on 12 February 1891, shortly before travelling to America for a two-year stint as director of a newly founded conservatory in New York. The work gets its name from dumka (dumky is the plural), a Ukrainian word meaning meditation or brooding. The dumka was a Slavonic song form that Dvořák utilised in a number of his compositions. His approach to the form, which was quite distinctive, emphasized contrast and called for a sectional layout in which a pensive, minor-key lament alternated with relaxed, dance-like material in the major. 

Dvořák took up this novel formal conception as a way of freeing himself from the accepted sonata-form structures and the sometimes overbearing influence of Brahms, who had helped the younger composer to become known outside Prague. But Dvořák’s natural instinct had always been to champion all things Czech, and his great achievement in this and many other works of this period was to create music of universal appeal while retaining his special Czech identity. Russian composers led by Musorgsky had initiated a similar attempt to break away from the stranglehold of German music and the rules of German composition; French composers were also looking to recreate their own tradition of composition and the Baltic countries were all championing their own national music.

The idea of creating a six-movement piano trio in which all six movements were based on the dumka structure was a bold one, but Dvořák’s inventiveness was more than equal to the challenge. Indeed, few of his works exhibit as clearly his exceptional skill at fusing contrasting material into a unified line of action. Part of what makes the Dumky so successful is Dvořák’s use of a different key in each movement to ensure variety of colour and mood. The result is a suite-like cycle, with movements in E minor, C sharp minor, A major, D minor, E flat and C minor, which is neither end- nor beginning-oriented, but cumulative in effect. Coherence is not sacrificed, however, because the similarity in structure between the various movements develops its own kind of formal unity, replacing what had been lost with the abandonment of a more conventional key scheme.

The first three dumky are linked together almost without a break. So, despite the composer, it is still possible to feel that it is a four-movement work – the first of the many deliciously confusing events in this work. The first dumka contrasts a very slow self-absorbed opening section with a shorter but lively dance, whose return brings the movement to an abrupt close. The slow theme of the second dumka is a typical Dvořák heart-on-sleeve romance. It is again contrasted with an intoxicating, headlong dance. The radiant opening of the third dumka is followed by another gorgeous vocal melody first heard in the piano, which treads the exquisite borderline of sentimentality, but whose transformations take flight. The vivace contrast is quite short, as if the composer cannot bear to be parted from his latest creation. The fourth dumka calls up a gentle march to break away from the mood of nostalgia. It is interspersed with a bright allegretto, ornamented by bird song from the violin. The fifth movement is the most extrovert, dominated by a flashy main theme, with the slow sections more like a series of melodramatic hesitations than a new melody. The finale opens with a dramatic Lento maestoso made up of brief tension-filled perorations and interjections, followed by the hectic vivace. This subsides again and, with great mastery, the composer finds a dozen ways to keep us on the edge of our seats until the last sudden explosion. 

The first performance of the Dumky Trio took place in Prague on 11 April 1891. Dvořák, showing his versatility as a performer, was the pianist; the cellist was Hanus Wihan, for whom Dvořák would soon write the Cello Concerto in B minor, and the violinist was Ferdinand Lachner. The three subsequently toured the work through Bohemia and Moravia. A few months later, Dvořák made his way to the New World.

Francis Humphrys