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Dvořák Four Songs for Viola and Piano

Arranged by Bernard Zaslav

Title: Four Songs
Composer: Antonín Dvořák
Instrument: Viola
Edited By: Bernard Zaslav
Instrumentation: Chamber/Solo with Piano
Pages: 20 including the viola and piano parts

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Antonín Dvořák's Four Songs, Op. 2 takes us as far back as Dvořák’s early theater years. One key effort from that period that he did not destroy was a set of eighteen songs called Cypresses. These were written very rapidly in July 1865 under the heady stimulus of Dvořák’s growing love for Anna Cermáková, his future wife. The composer was initially very proud of Cypresses, but when a friend gently pointed out the music did not, after all, fit the words very well, Dvořák was forced to agree. As a result, he consigned his manuscript to a drawer. About a decade-and-a-half later, however, he returned to Cypresses and substantially revised four songs from the collection, publishing them in 1883, and labeling them Op. 2 to make it clear that they were early works. Subsequently, Dvořák recycled Cypresses again: selecting a dozen of the songs, he solved the problem of the misfit lyrics by eliminating words altogether, as he recast the music for string quartet. The present viola-piano transcription of Op. 2 offers a similar instrumental solution to Dvořák’s Cypresses, freeing Dvořák’s youthful melodic inspiration from his problematic prosody.

The spirit of Robert Schumann hangs beneficently over the opening work of Op. 2, “Go forth my song,” but Dvořák has put his own harmonic footprint on the Schumannesque phrase structures and chord progressions. This tranquil benediction dedicates these songs to “those who wake at night” but especially to the poet’s beloved. In No. 2, “’Twas wondrous sweet,” Dvořák evokes the memory of a brief erotic encounter with keyboard figurations swirling amid an antiphonal duet between the vocal (viola) melody and the bass-line of the piano. The third song, “Naught to my heart can bring relief,” is perhaps the finest of the group. An elegiac melody, spun over a reiterated piano motif, mirrors the thoughts of one who has loved and lost, and now imagines he is standing before the tombstone of his own dead heart. In “Rest in the valley,” moto perpetuo figures depict an evening breeze and opulently Brahmsian harmonies support a melody of folk-like lilt.

-Benjamin Folkman

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Click below to listen to a recording of Bernard Zaslav performing Dvořák's Four Songs with pianist Naomi Zaslav.  To purchase the complete recording from ClassicsOnline click here.