Antonín Dvořák completed his Quintet no. 2 in G in 1875, with the exception of the Nocturno. It premiered on March 18, 1876, in Prague, with the original slow movement and on November 25, 1889, in its second rendition in Boston. Dvořák had composed the piece for a chamber music competition sponsored by the Prague organization called the Artistic Circle. It won the prize as well as praise from the jury for “distinction of theme, the technical skill in polyphonic composition, the mastery of form and… the knowledge of the instruments.” Dvořák had just won the Austrian State Stipend, which had given him the confidence to enter his new chamber work in the competition. The original conception consisted of five movements, however, Simrock published the Quintet in G Major twice, once in four movements in 1875, calling it Op. 18, and again in 1888 with five, when the composer issued a revised version as his Op. 77. Thus, the former version of the quintet excluded the Intermezzo.
Dvořák’s score calls for string quartet with the addition of double bass. Augmenting the quartet with a contrabass was a notion used principally by Georges Onslow, and was later made famous by Schubert’s Trout Quintet. In his Quintet no. 2, Dvořák uses the bass to reinforce the cello line in some instances, while in others it becomes a true fifth voice. There are also some special sonorities when the three lower instruments play as a trio. The work demonstrates a sense of the composer's later rejection of Wagner's experimental version of Romanticism and utilizes the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic influences from his Bohemian and Czech national context.
Even during the height of his success in Dvořák continued to create chamber works, producing several piano trios, fourteen string quartets, quintets for a variety of instrumentations, and other works. His Two Waltzes for String Quartet were taken from a set of eight waltzes, which were written for piano in 1879. After his publisher suggested that he make an arrangement for strings, Dvořák chose two to score for five string players in 1880. They were presented as a gift from the composer to members of the Prague Artistic Circle, which had given him the prize for his Quintet no. 2 in G in 1875. Ultimately, his arrangement for strings became better known than the original set for piano.
Darius Milhaud was born in 1892 in Aix-en-Provence, France. He began playing violin at the age of eight and first composed music at age 12. At the Paris Conservatory, he studied with composers Paul Dukas and Vincent d’Indy, and experimented with the Debussyian Impressionism. In 1918 he went to Brazil as an attaché to the French ambassador. Upon his return to France in 1920 he brought with him a partiality for the lively rhythm of Brazilian popular music and on a trip to the United States in 1922, he experienced "authentic" jazz for the first time, on the streets of Harlem leaving a great impression on him. Milhaud’s career divides neatly into two periods. The first, before 1940 and the second, afterwards with the fall of France to the Nazis serving as the division. Milhaud and his wife having fled Jewish persecution moved to the United States, where he was named professor of composition at Mills College, in Oakland, California. After the war, he also served on the faculty of the Paris Conservatory and his career took him back and forth between the two schools.
Milhaud’s String Quintet No. 2 is a true string quintet including double bass. The only other work in the standard repertoire using the same instrumentation is Dvořák’s String Quintet No. 2. Milhaud later wrote two other curious string quintets, one with a second viola and the other with a second cello and in the late 1940s, he composed two string quartets, his 14th and 15th, that can be played either by themselves or together at the same time as an octet. The Quintet No. 2 written in 1952, is representative of the composer’s intense Modernist preoccupation.
Alixandra Porembski, English Language Annotator