I struggled to come up with an idea of what to listen to today. It was a modest struggle – nothing painful or drawn out – perhaps more of a mild panic. After Finzi yesterday and keen to ensure variety and striving for something new, I wasn’t sure where to go next. It reminded me that curation and narrative is important when navigating through an imposing catalogue, even for those with knowledge and experience.
I ended up selecting something I was familiar with: Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings.
I first heard it when I was working with the English Symphony Symphony Orchestra in a rehearsal in a church hall in Malvern. The rehearsal space was small with the players taking up most of the room. After I’d set out the chairs and arranged the music stands, I made for the kitchen where the rest of my duties could be carried out: setting up the urn for refreshments.
The kitchen hatch was open; the players were only a few metres away. Fresh out of university, it was the first time I’d been up close to a professional orchestra. It meant I got to hear what sounded to me like a near-perfect performance.
Dvorak’s music is rooted in folksong, and the Serenade is a great demonstration of how the composer uses such material. I’ve always found the way Dvorak uses his material as orderly and measured. There is a neatness to his musical structure. It’s as though he’s paying respect to his musical sources. Listen to the opening of the first movement of the Serenade: an elegant theme in the upper strings with balanced, almost polite, responses in the cello and bass parts.
Dvorak’s restraint isn’t strangulating control, it just allows him more opportunities to develop musical intensity with relatively modest techniques. Listen out for when the opening theme returns towards the end of the first movement this time played in the cellos to – gives the music an intensely personal feel to an already intimate affair.
I was listening to Dvorak’s String Serenade played the Berlin Philharmonic on Spotify. I did listen to the entire work. Be sure you do too.
If you’ve got a suggestion for a work for me to listen to, leave a comment below or tweet me @thoroughlygood.