Antonín Dvořák – Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22, B. 5:
“There is so much pure goodness in it”
Antonín Dvořák‘s Serenade for Strings in E major (Czech: Smyčcová serenáda E dur), Op. 22, was composed in just two weeks in May 1875. It remains one of the composer’s more popular orchestral works to this day.
Composition and premiere
1875 was a fruitful year for Dvořák, during which he wrote his Symphony No. 5, String Quintet No. 2, Piano Trio No. 1, the opera Vanda, and the Moravian Duets. These were happy times in his life. His marriage was young, and his first son had been born. For the first time in his life, he was being recognized as a composer and without fear of poverty. He received a generous stipend from a commission in Vienna, which allowed him to compose his Fifth Symphony and several chamber works as well as the Serenade.
Dvořák is said to have written the Serenade in just 12 days, from 3–14 May. The piece was premiered in Prague on 10 December 1876 by Adolf Čech and the combined orchestras of the Czech and German theatres. It was published in 1877 in the composer’s piano duet arrangement by Emanuel Starý in Prague. The score was printed two years later by Bote and Bock, Berlin.
Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings consists of five movements:
With the exception of the Finale, which is in modified sonata form, each movement follows a rough A-B-A form. It is believed that Dvořák took up this small orchestral genre because it was less demanding than the symphony, but allowed for the provision of pleasure and entertainment. The piece combines cantabile style (first movement), a slow waltz (second movement), humorous high spirits (third movement), lyrical beauty (fourth movement) and exuberance (fifth movement).1
Quotes and Interpretation
“The Serenade (Op. 22) was aptly entitled, since at least four of its five movements (the second of which was a delightful waltz) displayed an elegant touch suggestive of gracious living accompanied by ‘serenading’ in the stately home of some 18th-century aristocrat; in the finale alone did the composer discard periwig and lace cuffs, and even here the junketing, though lively, was well-bred, and in the closing moments there was a delicious return to the courtliness of the opening. Pastiche perhaps, but what excellent pastiche! Since Dvořák was as yet only on the threshold of developing an individual style, it is perhaps not surprising that this slightly uncharacteristic but extremely accomplished and enjoyable Serenade is the earliest of his compositions in which a detached listener is likely to discover enchantment.” (Gervase Hughes 1967)2
“Just like delivering good news to someone has a positive rub-off effect on the messenger, performing Dvořák’s Serenade is really a very therapeutic endeavor for performers. There is so much ‘pure goodness’ in it. Somehow even the moments which could cast a gloomy shadow — light melancholy of the Waltz, or the fragility of the opening of Larghetto — retain the wonderfully cloudless atmosphere… The remarkable thing about Dvořák’s Serenade – this ‘cloudless goodness’ is fully sufficient for sustaining meaningful communication for nearly half an hour of music.” (Misha Rachlevsky, 2000)