String Quartet No. 12 in F major, B. 179, op. 96, “American”
November 20, 2016: Frank Huang, concertmaster; Sheryl Staples, principal associate concertmaster; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Carter Brey; cello
Beginning in the fall of 1892 Dvořák served as artistic director and professor of composition at the National Conservatory of Music in America (in New York City) at the urging of the institution’s president, Jeannette Thurber, who offered him twenty-five times the amount he was being paid at the Prague Conservatory. His life in the U.S. was hectic with teaching, public appearances, and engagements as a guest conductor, so he happily accepted an invitation to spend the summer of 1893 relaxing in a small farming community (300 residents) of Czech immigrants in Spillville, Iowa.
Overjoyed to be reunited with four of his children who had just arrived from Czechoslovakia with their aunt and a maid, Dvořák traveled to Spillville by train in a party that also included his wife, his two oldest children, and his secretary Josef Jan Kovařík who had grown up there. His delight at being in a rural setting among his countrymen immediately erupted in the composition of his American Quartet, which he sketched in only three days, June 8–10. At the end of the sketch he wrote: “Thanks to the Lord God, I am satisfied, it went quickly. Completed June 10, 1893.” Polishing the score occupied him until June 23, and members of the Kovařík family assisted in trying out the Quartet with the composer himself making his way through the first violin part. The Kneisel Quartet gave the premiere in Boston on New Year’s Day 1894 and in New York on January 12.
By far the most popular of Dvořák’s fourteen quartets, the American reflects his aim “to write something really melodious and simple.” As several scholars have pointed out, however, his effortless-sounding result masks remarkable unifying and thematic procedures. The first, second, and fourth movements all begin with an accompanimental backdrop before the main thematic material emerges. The first movement’s viola solo rising confidently over bass pedal and upper-string shimmer specifically brings to mind the opening of another famous Czech string quartet, Smetana’s “From My Life,” which Dvořák knew well.
Dvořák chose the “pastoral” key of F major for his work, in which pedals or drones and permeating pentatonic themes (based on five “white-key” notes, F, G, A, C, D) help transmit a rural, “simple” flavor. We should note, too, that these traits relate to American, Slavic, and many other folk traditions. Just one example, however, shows the kind of sophistication at work: the lovely pentatonic melody in the violin that closes the exposition begets the related but altered expressive theme for the cello just after the start of the recapitulation.
Many commentators have singled out the nostalgic Lento as the crowning movement of the Quartet, and Dvořák scholar Michael Beckerman has drawn attention to the Schubertian quality of its endless melody. Unfolding in a broad arch that comes to one of chamber music’s most exquisite climaxes, the movement relies primarily on the simple texture of the violin or cello carrying the melody with constant undulating support from the other instruments. Occasionally the second violin joins the first in a melodic role, as at the poignant climax. The final keening of the main theme by the cello against simple repeated chords rather than the former busy accompaniment lends an air of tragedy.
Dvořák bases his entire scherzo on the same theme, with a variant serving as the contrasting section, which appears twice. Kovařík suggested that the quiet high violin tune that enters shortly after the opening was inspired by a bird call Dvořák heard outside his home in Spillville. Though the exact species of bird has never been determined beyond question, the most likely candidate is the scarlet tanager.
The composer offsets the cheerful main theme of the rondo finale with episodes of more reflective quality. Toward the center, one of these quieter passages suggested to Dvořák scholar John Clapham an occasion when the composer enchanted the St. Wenceslas congregation of Spillville by spontaneously playing the organ during their typically music-less morning mass. The ebullient high spirits cannot be suppressed for long and the movement ends with a plethora of affirmative phrases.
© Jane Vial Jaffe