Dvorak’s E-flat Quartet, opus 51, is arguably the earliest of his quartets to be truly well-known and and to occupy a place in the standard repertoire, along with the C major, A-flat major, and “American” quartets. The E-flat Quartet is called the “Slavic Quartet” because of its genesis – Jean Becker of the Florentine Quartet commissioned the work, requesting a quartet “in the Slavic style”.

The opening of the first movement is striking in its use of a rolling, hurdy- gurdy-like texture in the lower instruments, over which the first violin weaves a tender, intimate melody. This mood dominates the whole movement; although more vigorous, rhythmic elements are introduced by way of contrast, the overarching feeling remains reflective and pastoral. The second movement is one of Dvorak’s famous “Dumka” movements, a Czech form without a real parallel in other national traditions; here the main material is sorrowful, as the title “Elegy” implies, but with a brighter, songful second theme, and an utterly contrasting Scherzo-like dance section that interrupts the movement in two places. The result is a delightfully ambivalent world where grief and joy are juxtaposed, somehow without conflict. The third movement, titled “Romanze,” lives up to its name by eschewing strict form, choosing rather to wander among melancholy ideas; the focus
here is on shifting textures, alternation between major and minor, and a mood of quiet rumination. By contrast, the Finale is a genial, sunny, folk-like rondo, whose main idea is distinguished by its syncopated rhythm. Brilliant throughout, this movement often demands an orchestral scale of sound from the quartet, most notably in the coda, where the music at first dwindles teasingly before a triumphant conclusion.

Note by Misha Amory

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