The Bagatelles for the unusual combination of two violins, cello and harmonium were composed at the beginning of May 1878 for a circle of musicians who met every Wednesday at the Prague apartment of Josef Srb-Debrnov, a music writer and organiser of concerts. They were first performed in public on 2nd February 1879 and published by Simrock in 1880 as Op. 47 with a dedication 'To my friend Josef Srb-Debrnov'.
Heavily influenced by Dvorak's Bohemian heritage, the first and third movements strongly feature the folk song 'The bagpipes were playing at Pobudy', which also makes an appearance in the fifth movement. The second movement, Tempo di Minuetto, with its distinctive and persistent dotted rhythm is modelled after a sousedska, a rustic minuet. The easy lyricism of the fourth movement is canonic throughout with the violin and cello playing the same melody at a short distance.
Born near Prague, Dvorák studied the violin with his local school master. Then, between 1857 and 1859, he attended the Prague Organ School. He was influenced by the Czech composer Smetana who, from 1866, directed the Opera Orchestra in which Dvorák played the viola. From about 1873, he devoted most of his life to composition. He won the Austrian State Stipendium three times, in 1874, 1876 and 1877. This got the attention of the composer Johannes Brahms , who in 1878 arranged for the publisher Simrock to publish some of Dvorák’s works. Under this arrangement, Dvorák’s music began to be performed throughout Europe. Some of these early works include the Slavonic Dances, the Symphony No. 6 and the Stabat Mater. He received several commissions, particularly in England, where he was very popular and much admired. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University.
In 1891 Dvorák became a Professor of Composition at the Prague Conservatoire, and before leaving for the USA he toured Bohemia playing the new Dumky Trio. From 1892 until 1895 he was the Director of the new National Conservatory in New York, teaching composition. During this period of his life, his compositions show his deep interest in American folk music. These include the famous Symphony No. 9 ('From the New World'), the String Quartet in F, the String Quintet in E flat and the Cello Concerto.
Homesickness took him back to Prague, where he began to write symphonic poems. He received many honours in his own country and resisted invitations by Brahms to move to Vienna where he was only grudgingly accepted. His attempts at dramatic music were eventually rewarded with the success of the opera Rusalka (1901). He died in 1904, shortly after the first performances of his last opera, Armida. The late 19th century brought an increasing awareness of national identity to various ethnic groups in Europe and Dvorák’s musical career was influenced by the spirit of Bohemian nationalism.