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String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 "American"

About the Work

Antonín Dvorák
Quick Look Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Richard E. Rodda
On June 3, 1893, Antonín Dvorák left his apartment at 327 East 17th Street in New York City, and journeyed via Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago to Calmar, Iowa. An hour after the composer arrived at Calmar, a carriage deposited him, his wife, their six children, a maid and the composer's secretary at the doorstep of a sturdy, two-story brick house in Spillville, a settlement of a few hundred souls founded some forty years before by a “Bavarian-German” named Spielmann. It was not the Germans, however, who followed Spielmann to the open spaces of Iowa, but the Czechs and the Bohemians, Dvorák's countrymen, among whom were members of his secretary's family, the clan Kovarík. Though Dvorák was certainly not uncomfortable in his position as Director of the National Conservatory in New York (he boasted in a letter to one friend about his $15,000 salary, an enormous sum in the 1890s), he missed Prague, and hearing Czech spoken in the streets, and his pigeons, and the traditional songs, and so was easily persuaded by Papa Kovarík, Spillville's school teacher and choirmaster, to spend the summer of 1893 in that little slice of his homeland that had dropped onto the Midwestern prairie. In his Reminiscences , Kovarík recorded the following information: “The Master's day in Spillville was more or less as follows: he got up about four a.m. and went for a walk — to the stream or river — and returned at five. After his walk, he worked; at seven, he was sitting at the organ in church, then he chatted a little, went home, worked again, and then went for another walk.... Almost every afternoon he spent in the company of some of the old settlers. He got them to tell him about their bitter and difficult beginnings in America.... He liked being here.”

Though there was little musical stimulation for Dvorák in Spillville (considerable energy had to be expended just to find a piano for his rooms), his creativity blossomed there. On June 8th, just three days after he arrived, he began his F major Quartet, and finished the sketches in an astonishing 72 hours. “Thanks be to the Lord God. I am satisfied. It went quickly,” he scribbled at the end of the manuscript. The Quartet was completed, scored and polished by June 23rd. So eager was he to hear this new creation that he commandeered a violin for himself, and enlisted three members of the talented Kovarík family for an immediate run-through of the piece. Still bubbling with inspiration, the following day Dvorák began the Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas and Cello (Op. 97), which was completed on August 1st, just before he left for a week to participate in a “Czech Day” at the Chicago World's Fair. Both the Quintet and the Quartet were publicly unveiled by the Kneisel Quartet in Boston on New Year's Day, 1894.

Dvorák's “American” Quartet, the chamber counterpart to his “New World” Symphony, completed in New York during the previous spring, is among the sunniest and most endearing creations in the instrumental repertory. A shimmering halo of string sound opens the work and serves as the cushion for the viola's presentation of the folk-like main subject, which, like several of the other themes of the work, is hewn from the gapped pentatonic (i.e., five-note) scale common to much indigenous music of the world, from the Orient to Bohemia and Scotland to the Indian and Afro-American songs of the New World. A cloud of darker emotion draws briefly across the music for the presentation of the complementary subject, but the mood brightens again for the closing theme, a delightful melody, as sweet as a lullaby, entrusted to the first violin. The development section concerns itself first with permutations of the main subject and then with an imitative treatment of a motive derived from the dark-hued complementary theme. The full recapitulation of the earlier themes brings balance, formal closure and complete fulfillment to this most satisfying movement.

The Lento , wrote Otakar Sourek, “is distinguished by the lyrical beauty of its melodic line, the emotional purity and depth of its expression, the peculiar charm of its pellucid harmonies, and by its natural flow and variety.” The movement's beautiful main theme, first sung by the violin above a sad, undulating accompaniment, is both calm and melancholy, touched perhaps in equal amounts by the composer's own homesickness and by the poignant expressions of heartache that he admired in the Negro spirituals he had learned in New York from his student Henry Thacker Burleigh. The song soars higher and the mood becomes brighter as the movement progresses, but the plaintive tone of the opening again settles upon the music as it reaches its closing measures.

The vivacious third movement, deliciously equivocal in its rhythmic implications, is built from two contrasting strains of music. One (in F major) is lively and dance-like, the other (F minor) is more lyrical and mysterious, and their juxtaposition yields the movement's structural organization: A–B–A–B–A. A delightful Spillville anecdote attaches to the high violin phrase that is heard about twenty measures after the beginning. It seems that a bird had settled in the tree just outside the window of Dvorák's study, and persistently filled the composer's room with its songs. Dvorák compensated for these interruptions to his creative process by borrowing the song of what he called “this damned bird — red, with black wings” (identified as a scarlet tanager by the composer's biographer John Clapham) for the theme of this passage.

The finale is a rondo built on a dashing folk-dance melody announced by the violin. The second of the movement's episodes, a chorale passage in the style of a Czech hymn, is a touching souvenir of the composer's idyllic summer in Iowa. This masterwork of the fullest efflorescence of Dvorák's mature genius recalls the main theme one last time to close in a spirit of joyous optimism.