This summer, the Emerson String Quartet and Emanuel Ax make an unprecedented joint appearance at the Mostly Mozart Festival. On the program is Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, a work that, when it was written in 1887, was also an unprecedented event: a piano quintet that was at once ambitiously modern and reverently rustic. 

Today, the idea of a small chamber ensemble featuring strings and a piano is certainly no great innovation. The repertoire for piano trios, quartets, and quintets is expansive, and the range of difficulty makes them accessible to almost all players. But it took some convincing and reworking throughout the 19th century to get the catalog to where it is now. 

While the piano concerto had long since become a serious and respected form, small piano ensembles had not yet reached the same level of maturity. There were indeed many works written for piano and small ensemble before 1800, but until the 1840s the piano and ensemble seemed to compete for virtuosic passages, usually relegating the other to polite accompaniment. This is likely a vestige of Baroque chamber music which relied on the harpsichord, whose limited dynamic range didn’t lend it to the spotlight.

"Until the 1840s the piano and ensemble seemed to compete for virtuosic passages."

Perhaps the piano quartet’s first break as a real concert medium was in the mid-1780s when Mozart was contracted to write three of them. The first, however, was rejected by audiences and the contract was ended before he could publish the second. At the time, most music written for these small ensembles was marketed toward wealthy amateurs to play in their homes—certainly not for the Emanuel Axes and Emerson String Quartets of the time. Mozart’s more technically demanding music was both unfamiliar and unplayable to the target audience. These aristocrats were used to fare such as Haydn’s 12 Divertimenti for Harpsichord.

Mechanical changes to the piano didn’t lead to the 88-keyed, wire-strung instrument we know today until the late 19th century. In Dvořák’s time, the three string per note convention was a new idea, meant to make the piano louder and produce more exciting dynamics. While countless now-famous piano works had been written by then, the public’s familiarity with the modern instrument and its abilities was still relatively limited in the 1880s. So when performers started playing these new, powerful pianos, crowds were drawn to the spectacle. Until then, the piano with string quartet wasn’t worth paying to see, as it was a trademark of an amateur. This was music for the home and at the time songs were spread through sheet music sales, and pianists played them in parlors and dance venues.

The first movement opens with a harmless cello solo over a dreamy piano line, but within 30 seconds it turns to busy, passionate, and loud playing that might be a bit much for entertaining the neighbors over a glass of wine. 

Dvořák understood the importance of integrating popular tastes, and his second movement is a dumka, a Slavic folk dance with some catchy oom-pah backing (11:13) and a singable melody. Since he may have anticipated that Alice Tully Hall would not be arranged for the audience to form circles and dumka about, he keeps a seated audience interested by expanding upon the themes. He creates a crazed and unpredictable middle section (just before 7:00) that respects his people’s heritage but gives it a new face, including some classically folkish playing techniques.

It may be hard to hear, but around 7:40, the first violin plays the same note twice, but he slides into the second. As a violin student, when I was learning Vittorio Monti’s Czárdás, a Hungarian folk dance, my teacher told me to “give it a little more schmaltz.” It seems trivial, but without the sliding, the piece would sound lifeless. These effects aren’t written in Dvořák’s score, but they are vital to this type of music and a sensitive player will consider the cultural and historical context of this passage when deciding on a playing style. In the quintet, the effect creates a fascinating collision with more standard Romantic concert hall playing such as the rolling, arpeggiated bass line in the piano (7:45) and the high, fleeting accompaniment (0:50) in the Scherzo.

In the 40 minutes it takes to play the piece, Dvořák’s quintet truly goes all over the place, filled with frantic beauty. In it, the small piano ensemble voiced its desire to be taken seriously, but made sure not to abandon its original purpose: entertaining the people.

A member of Lincoln Center's editorial team, Gabe Mizrachi is a pianist, violinist, and guitarist who recently graduated from Bates College with a degree in music composition.