Outburst: 5 different emotions that foster joy

The piece

Serenade for Strings, Op. 22 (1875) by A. Dvorak (Bohemia, 1841 – Prague, 1904)

Vienna 1900sHow did the piece come about?

1875 was a fruitful year for Dvorak. He had been married two years, and his first son had been born. He received a generous stipend from a commission in Vienna, which allowed him to compose his Fifth Symphony (eventually published as #3), a second String Quintet, Piano Trio, the opera Vanda, the Moravian Duets, as and the Serenade. For the first time in his life, he was being recognized as a composer and lived without fear of poverty. How would a composer celebrate such a life-changing event? By composing some more music! Dvorak is said to have written the Serenade in under 12 days, from 3–14 May. The piece was premiered in Prague the next year, and published for the first time a year after that.

Architecture of the Serenade

“Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings consists of five movements, each seemingly intended to represent well-defined emotions or affects

Tempo di Valse
Scherzo: Vivace
Finale: Allegro vivace

A word about affects. In the later part of the twentieth century, American psychologist Silvan Tomkins developed his groundbreaking work: The Affect Theory. An “affect” is a specific category of emotions; you may be familiar with Affect Theory from the recent Pixar movie Inside Out, which turns the affects of joy, disgust, sadness, anger and fear into allegorical characters inside the characters’ head. Tomkins connected each human emotion with its typical response: an immediate facial reaction. For example, the affect joy is observed through the display of smiling. Almost always the smile appears subconsciously, well before its owner could process any real response to the stimulus.

What I find interesting is that since the 1400s musicians developed a strong theory of their own. It is the Doctrine of Affects. Its main idea embraced the proposition that music is capable of arousing a variety of specific emotions within the listener. At the centre of the doctrine is the belief that, by making use of the proper standard musical procedure or device, the composer could create a piece of music capable of producing a particular involuntary emotional response in his audience.

CzechDanceComing back to Dvorak’s, his Serenade is less demanding for players and audiences than a symphony can be, but also allows for the provision of pleasure and entertainment, a piece for the sake of fun. The composer is looking for specific emotional reactions from his audience and, as we  already saw the reasons behind its composition, all of those emotions are positive. The serenade combines a song-like style (first movement), a slow waltz (second movement), humorous high spirits (third movement), lyrical beauty (fourth movement) and exuberance (fifth movement). One affect connected to each movement. You can consider the whole piece an outburst of 5 different emotions that leads us to experience fulfilling joy.

Let’s now consider each of them. Using simple forms Dvorak nevertheless achieved considerable melodic and harmonic variety. When we say simple forms, we only mean that the architecture of movements one to four consist on an opening material that is contrasted and later replayed. These two pillars are basis of all good music: contrast and repetition.


1. Moderato

To start off the Serenade, the composer chooses a 4-note really simple melody, his main theme:

The second violins and cellos introduce the lyrical main theme over an eighth note pulse in the violas. This theme is traded back and forth, in a technique called imitation.

This melody is going to become extremely important once we reach the last movement. It carries, as we said before, an affect with it. There are moments when everything we do seems to be heading in the “right” direction, the “stars” seem to be aligned, and we cannot resist the impulse to sing and share that lift in our mood with the world.


2. Tempo di Valse

The second movement, a proper waltz, opens with a lilting dance melody.

The movement is built alternating this melody with its counterpart, back and forth, just like dancers would do in a State ball.


3. Scherzo: Vivace

The third movement is a lively, hyperactive Scherzo.

The theme is stated and subsequently reworked in sections of different speeds and moods. The contrasting section in a Scherzo is traditionally called Trio, even though there are usually more than three instruments playing.

The ending of this movement is especially beautiful as both the Scherzo and the Trio themes are recalled as if in a dream:


The slow movement of the Serenade is tranquil and wistful. Its flowing melodies and tender phrases form a buffer between the vigorous third and fifth movements.

Let’s consider the journey proposed in the piece momentarily. Our circumstances seem to be going our way and suddenly our perception of life turns quite bright. The first reaction that Dvorak considers is singing, followed by a dance. Later on the consideration results towards an uncontainable mood that seem to burst out into the world, it even suggest a moment of daydreaming! This fourth movement reflects and contemplates both inner feelings and one’s circumstances. Now beauty seems to be guiding our thoughts and its consideration can only result in one last burst of euphoria.


Finale: Allegro vivace

The fifth movement is a lively, offbeat finale, conveying the spirit of a Bohemian village dance. Do you remember when we said this piece was all about joy? well, the principal theme is built on a descending pattern of thirds with accents on weak beats

Curiously in the same manner than Beethoven started the last movement of his ninth symphony!

This last movement is built not on 2 but on 3 themes. In addition to new themes in this movement, old themes from previous movements also return, like the strands of a story coming together at the end of a good book. If themes from one movement reappear in a later movement, the piece is said to be “cyclical,” because the themes cycle back throughout the piece. Halfway through the movement, the cellos surprise us with a replay of the Larghetto melody (fourth movement).

Then the composer decides to reprise all the music we have heard until this point, with subtle variations but enough to be recognized as a recapitulation. And right before the end, we get to hear a quotation of the first movement’s theme,

and this brings the piece full circle, that outburst of 5 different emotions that foster joy that we were considering from the very beginning.


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Dvorak’s String Serenade: 5 bursting emotions fostering joy

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