Antonín Dvořák: Serenade for Strings in E
Antonín Dvořák composed his famous Serenade for Strings in E in just two weeks during a creative spell in May 1875. This was a particularly creative year for Dvořák, as he had also composed his Fifth Symphony, Second String Quintet amongst many other pinnacle works. Serenade for Strings in E was premiered in December 1876 by a combination orchestra made up of some of the finest Czech and German theater musicians. Like many of his works, Serenade for Strings in E remains one of his most treasured.
Split into five movements, Serenade brings together five different characters to the table. From lyrical to exuberant this work has it all.
Movement I – Moderato
The slow opening movement starts in the home key of E major. As the pulsating accompaniment supports the lyrical theme Dvořák begins to experiment with his orchestrations, allowing the strings to communicate through the melodies. The themes of this opening movement are traded around the ensemble, before a quick modulation to G major, which introduces a dance theme. This movement ends with a reprise of the opening material before ending back in the home key of E major.
Movement II – Tempo di Valse
The famous second movement – a waltz – opens with a syncopated dance melody. Now in C# minor, this movement sees the composer explore modal harmony. The memorable melody is then taken and turned into a small set of variations. Although in the minor for a majority of the movement, the upbeat character of the music shines through. A quick modulation to A major starts a new section before returning and closing with a cadential fortissimo in C# minor.
After the cadence the music moves into Db major, which acts as a developmental part of the movement. As the music from the opening begins to creep back in, the movement ends in C# major.
Movement III – Scherzo: Vivace
The lively third movement is a classic type of scherzo movement. Now in F major, the theme is taken by the violins from the beginning. This movement shows Dvořák playing around with different mood sets, as each section of the scherzo presents a different character. The scherzo and trio combine to create the coda section, which ends triumphantly.
Movement IV – Larghetto
The slowest of the five movements, Larghetto is tranquil and calm in character. Unlike the previous peppy scherzo, the fourth movement is introverted, emotional and secretive. Tender melodic phrasing and rich textures sets this movement out between two faster sections of the Serenade.
Movement V – Finale: Allegro vivace
The joyous finale movement depicts a Bohemian dance. The chugging accompaniment supports the syncopated upper string melodies. Lots of call and response figures between the upper and lower strings, which adds tension and excitement to the music. As with many finales, the music incorporates some previously heard melodies from other movements. Dvořák uses a quotation from the previous movement near the end – bringing the piece full circle through the five movements. A fast coda brings the Serenade to its climatic and thrilling end, back in the home key of E major.
Ⓒ Alex Burns