Dvořák was an expert string player. For nearly ten years he played viola in the Prague Provisional Theatre orchestra and was well known as one of the city’s most reliable string players, to the extent that he took part in the private premiere of Smetana’s first string quartet in 1878. He was also a violinist who, by his own account in an interview with The Sunday Times, had played the instrument as a boy. If he rarely played the violin in later life, he left an estimable handful of works for the instrument, including the violin concerto.
According to a composition pupil, Dvořák preferred his violin concerto to the great B minor cello concerto. While posterity has favoured the cello concerto, the violin concerto, with its passionate virtuosity and abundant lyricism, has always appealed. Dvořák wrote the work in the summer of 1879 when his reputation was fast acquiring an international dimension. Moreover, the friendly intervention of Brahms found him a Berlin publisher of standing and introductions to influential musical supporters outside Bohemia. One of the most important was Brahms’s close friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Dvořák visited Joachim in Berlin in July 1879 to discuss his new concerto; whatever the subject of their conversation, the concerto was eventually dedicated to Joachim.
This was not, however, the end of the story. While praising Dvořák, understanding of the violin, Joachim suggested numerous changes which the composer, an avid reviser of his own works, undertook meticulously. Even these alterations were not enough for Robert Keller, an adviser to Dvořák, publisher, who wanted him to change the ending of the first movement rather than letting it lead straight into the slow movement. Dvořák wisely rejected the advice and retained the passage, one of the loveliest in the concerto, linking the first two movements. The concerto was published in 1883 and premiered the same year by the Czech virtuoso, František Ondříček.
Even by Dvořák, standards the concerto is a richly lyrical work. The work begins boldly with a forceful orchestral statement answered by a bitter-sweet melody from the violin before the main part of the movement in which the soloist is rarely silent. A miniature cadenza introduces the exquisitely crafted link into the slow movement whose rapt melodic lines are interrupted by a stormy minor-key episode – a direct anticipation of the slow movement of the cello concerto composed fifteen years later. The Finale is close to the world of the Slavonic Dances composed the year before; it opens with a main theme imbued with the cross-rhythms of the Czech furiant. This ear-catching melody is the frame for a number of memorable episodes, including a reflective interlude in D minor, before an exhilarating rush to the close.
Exactly when Dvořák wrote the Romance for Violin is unknown, but its main theme was taken from a quartet in F minor (op.9, B37) composed in 1873. The stimulus for composing the Romance was a composition request for a benefit concert for the pension fund of the choir and orchestra of the Prague Provisional Theatre on 9 December 1877. The soloist at the premiere was Josef Markus, but Dvořák later dedicated the work to Ondříček. The Romance is a great improvement on the string quartet slow movement. A delicately orchestrated introduction leads to a lovely main theme played by the solo violin. A second melody, the gentle accompaniment of which closes the work, leads to heart-stopping modulations and heralds some exquisite virtuoso figuration for the soloist.
Dvořák originally wrote the Mazurek for violin and piano early in 1879; it was premiered on 29 March by the violinist Ferdinand Lachner and the composer Zdeněk Fibich, and published that year with a dedication to the famous Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. The orchestral version, like that of the Romance for a modest ensemble, was made at the same time. Simple in outline, the opening of the Mazurek is full of passionate melody for the soloist, while the gentler, secondary material inclines toward Dvořák’s ‘Slavonic’ manner.
Dvořák was often quite as happy working on small-scale pieces as composing symphonies, quartets and opera. In January 1887, shortly after he had completed the substantial oratorio, St Ludmila, for the Leeds Festival, he wrote a Terzetto to play with friends. The performers in question were Dvořák himself on the viola, an amateur violinist called Josef Kruis and his teacher, Jan Pelikán.
In the event, the Terzetto proved too difficult for Kruis, but Dvořák made rich amends with four utterly charming Miniatures, completed on 18 January 1887. Located very much in the melodic ‘comfort zone’ Dvořák had forged in the mid-1870s, the Miniatures give the first violin, presumably the aspiring Kruis, the lead where the tunes are concerned; this made the set ideal for arrangement for violin and piano, which Dvořák did as soon as he finished the original. The opening movement, rich in harmonic incident, veers between major and minor keys in bitter-sweet reverie. The vigorous second movement – a kind of scherzo – has a modal, almost Janáček-like vigour; again the first violin leads, but later takes on an accompanying role. Aspiring melody characterises the brisk third movement leading to the finale, an extended, soulful meditation on the opening phrase.