String Quartet No. 14 in A-Flat, Op. 105
January 10, 2010 – Emerson String Quartet
Born of rustic peasant stock, Antonín Dvořák began life as an apprentice butcher in a small Bohemian village near Prague. Although he grew to be one of the world’s most celebrated and admired composers, he never forgot his humble roots. For all of his worldliness, sophistication, and inexhaustible gifts, Dvořák remained firmly rooted in the soil of his native Bohemia throughout his life.
In 1892, when he was 51 and at the height of his fame, Dvořák was invited by Mrs. Jeannette Thurber to move to New York City to head the newly established National Conservatory of Music. Mrs. Thurber, the wife of a wealthy grocer who had endowed the school, found in Dvořák a world-renowned musical figure to organize the program, attract a highly qualified faculty, and help establish an indigenously American style of music-making. In Dvořák’s own words, Mrs. Thurber brought him to New York to “discover what young Americans had in them, and to help them express it.”
The National Conservatory was forward-looking in its admissions policies, welcoming African Americans and other minorities. While in New York and during his summer travels to the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, Dvořák became acquainted with African American spirituals and Native American folk music. He was impressed by what he heard and incorporated the influence into much of the music that he composed during his three years in America, most famously his ninth symphony (“From the New World”) and his F-Major string quartet (“The American”).
Despite his fascination with life in America and the hearty reception that he received, he never stopped feeling homesick for his beloved Bohemia. Finally, in April of 1895, he and his family sailed back to Europe, never to return to America. During his final weeks in New York City, he began to sketch out two string quartets, one in G major and the other in A-flat major. These were completed upon his return to Prague and reflected his joy on returning to his homeland. The Quartet in A-Flat, his last piece for that instrumental combination, is a work of supreme mastery, a life-affirming tour de force.
The first movement begins in a deceptively somber mood, perhaps a reflection of Dvořák’s nostalgic state of mind during his final days in America. A portentous, A-flat minor motive is passed sequentially from the cello upward through the ranks to the first violin, only to be interrupted by fierce, dissonant chords. The ominous atmosphere is suddenly ameliorated by the first violin, which whips the motive into a bright A-flat major, immediately transforming the mood into one of jaunty good cheer. One can easily envision Dvořák strolling contentedly down the streets of his beloved Prague. From this point on, the movement sails forth in a dancing, lighthearted mode. The melancholy opening cello motive returns for a moment at the end of the movement but is now transformed teasingly into a subtle musical joke by Dvořák’s sophisticated use of harmony.
A lively Scherzo and Trio follows. Again reflecting the joy of homecoming, the Scherzo is cast in the taut, snapping rhythms of a Furiant, a popular Czech folkdance featuring shifting accents and alternating metrical groupings. The contrasting Trio is smooth and lyrical, with long, arching melodic duets between various instrumental combinations played over a gently sustained accompaniment.
Dvořák offers in the third movement a tender, deeply felt hymn of thanksgiving. The atmosphere of consolation and religiosity gradually devolves into a disconcerting moment of silence, which is followed by a pensive, chromatic interlude over a pulsing pedal tone in the cello. The intensity and emotional temperature rise until a fortissimo climax has been reached, after which the music gradually returns to the tranquil, prayer-like melody of the first section, now accompanied by gentle pizzicatos in the viola and bass and skittering filigree in the second violin. The movement ends in a moment of transcendent reconciliation, as the unsettled music of the interlude is subtly blended with the consoling hymn of thanksgiving.
The last movement begins with a breathless melodic fragment in the cello. The 2nd violin and viola pounce on it in a startling burst of tremolo, but the first violin again corrals the music back into a sunny A-flat major, defusing the tension and transforming the mood into one of pure joy. Dvořák builds an exuberant finale out of humble components, just as he embraces his rustic Bohemian roots and uses them as the basis of a work of unsurpassed sophistication and maturity. At the end he throws the music into the highest gear of intensity and races to an ebullient, virtuosic conclusion.
By Michael Parloff