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A nocturne is generally a tranquil, lyrical piece of music. In Mozart’s time the Italian title ‘Notturno’ – referring to the night – indicated a piece of music performed late in the evening, but during the Romantic period the French ‘Nocturne’ became associated with music inspired by, or suggestive of, the night itself. In the case of Czech composer Antonín Dvorák’s charming Nocturne for strings, we might hear a little of both.
Dvorák marked this music Andante religioso when it first appeared as part of an early string quartet, likely written during the years of experimentation in the 1860s the composer would describe as his ‘mad period’. While no score exists, the individual parts of the quartet survived, suggesting it might have been played through with friends before Dvorák scrapped it. He obviously saw the value in the drawn-out melody of the slow movement, however, as he reworked it in 1875 – shortening the movement and adding a double bass part – for his String Quintet in G major, Op. 77. Again, Dvorák left the movement on the cutting room floor and the string quintet was published without it, but he returned to it in 1883, this time using the original quartet version as the basis for a single movement work for string orchestra that he dubbed Nocturne and published as his Opus 40. This final version, upon which the string quintet arrangement presented in this concert is based, premiered in London alongside the first performance of Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 70.
While the music is that of a young Dvorák, we can nonetheless hear the gift for melody that would see his Slavonic Dances and late symphonies become famous the world over. The lower strings introduce a climbing theme that underpins the whole movement before the violin takes over and the double bass becomes a gentle heartbeat nudging the winding string lines forward. As the movement reaches its climax the heartbeat in the bass intensifies into an insistent pulsing accompaniment, the violin melody reaching longingly into the upper register. Finally, the bass descends and the violin climbs one last time, bringing the piece to a serene conclusion. © Angus McPherson, 2023