String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96, B179 "American"
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
8 June – 23 June 1893
Premiere - date and place
1 January 1894, Boston
Kneisel Quartet (Franz Kneisel, Otto Roth, Louis Svecenski, Alvin Schroeder)
Simrock, 1894, Berlin
Parts / movements
1. Allegro ma non troppo
3. Molto vivace
4. Finale. Vivace ma non troppo
approx. 26 min.
composition history and premiere
Dvořák wrote his String Quartet in F major during his sojourn in the American town of Spillville (Iowa state), where he spent his first summer holidays during his tenure at New York’s National Conservatory of Music. After many months working in the hectic atmosphere of the big city, he now found himself in an environment he loved best: surrounded by nature. The village inhabited by the descendants of Czech emigrants reminded him of his summer residence in Bohemia and, after a long period of separation, he was now once more in the company of all his children, who had come to America for the holidays. Dvořák’s state of mind at that time is best illustrated by an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his friend Jindřich Geisler: “I have been on vacation since 3 June here in the Czech village of Spillville and I won’t be returning to New York until the latter half of September. The children arrived safely from Europe and we’re all happy together. We like it very much here and, thank God, I am working hard and I’m healthy and in good spirits.”
These days of contentment and family harmony, and the hospitality of the locals gave rise to an exceptionally joyful piece of music. The entire sketch for the quartet emerged within an astonishingly short period of time, a mere 72 hours, in fact, and the whole score was finished within twelve days. On the last page of the sketch Dvořák noted: “Thank God. I am pleased. It all went so quickly!”. The premiere of the quartet was given in Boston by the Kneisel Quartet on New Year’s Day 1894. The work was so successful that the Kneisel Quartet performed the work fifty times at various music venues that same year.
The String Quartet in F major is known as the “American”, not only since it appeared on the American continent, but also for the fact that it contains a number of elements typical for original African American and Native American music. This particularly applies to the pentatonic character of the themes, the lowered (minor) seventh in the minor scale, the marked syncopation, ostinato rhythms etc. For more than a century, musicologists have debated on the extent to which this quartet is “American” or “Czech”. Opinions differ considerably. Certain scholars try to find specific Negro songs or Native American melodies in the quartet (generally without success); others hold that the quartet is “American” only in name and point to features which are sometimes considered typically Czech or Slavonic (parallel thirds and sixths). Dvořák himself commented on this issue: “I know that I would never have written my new symphony, or the String Quartet in F major, or the quintet here in Spillville, if I had never seen America!” While the New World Symphony, despite its many “Americanisms”, essentially represents a classical symphony of European provenance, the quartet is something entirely different, in many respects quite unlike any of the composer’s chamber works written before or subsequently. In its rough outline it does respect the traditional notions of the quartet form (sonata cycle), nevertheless, it deliberately abandons ideas of sophisticated thematic treatment, dramatic development sections, complex polyphonic structures, or evenly balanced “dialogues” between all the instruments.
In this context musicologist Hartmut Schick points out a characteristic feature of the quartet, namely a general absence of any harmonic or polyphonic accompaniment to the principal melodic line, as if the composer were attempting to create a song for one voice, uninterrupted by subordinate parts. He interprets this marked homophonic style and directness as an opposition of sorts against the traditional paradigm of the quartet form. In the past, the work was even occasionally criticised for its lack of “erudition” and sophistication, but the enormous popularity of the work only served to support Dvořák’s assertion where he states: “When I wrote this quartet in the Czech community of Spillville in 1893, I wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did.” Every bar of the quartet is a triumph of Dvořák’s melodic vision, his pure musicianship and immediacy. For these qualities it is one of the most frequently performed chamber works in the world repertoire.
The first movement in sonata form begins confidently with a pentatonic main theme in the viola, and later in the first violin, above a sustained tremolo F major chord. The unusual decision to allow the viola, and not the violin, to introduce the main subject for the first time, led Hartmut Schick to the conclusion that this was some kind of autobiographical element. Dvořák was a competent violist, thus the introduction to the quartet could conceivably be seen as a musical expression of Dvořák’s arrival in Spillville. This is a four-bar period with a broadly arching melody (spanning one and a half octaves), whose highly rhythmicised responsive phrase is then used as material for the development section. The second subject in A minor reinforces the fundamental relaxed mood of the movement and incorporates other aspects typical for Dvořák’s American oeuvre: the lowered seventh and marked pizzicato accompaniment in the cello. The final theme in A major – also pentatonic – establishes a sense of tranquility in the movement. The development section works with motivic phrases derived from the main subject; it is relatively concise and doesn’t introduce any major dramatic twist that might disturb the overall idyllic character of the movement. The development ends with a short fugato whose presence further underscores the clearly homophonic nature of the work. The recapitulation differs from the exposition with an extra passage inserted between the main and second subjects, anchored in the melody from the closing theme. The brief coda is constructed from two motivic elements from the main theme.
The second part of the quartet is one of Dvořák’s most evocative slow movements. Its endless, melancholic melody flows, without interruption and without major contrasts, in a single, sweeping arc against a background of an ostinato figure in the lower voices. Some analysts see in this movement a reflection of the homesickness and loneliness that might affect someone in the middle of the vast prairies of the Interior Lowlands, which Dvořák, himself, describes in one of his letters to his friends back home: “It is strange here. Few people and many empty spaces. A farmer might be separated from his neighbour by perhaps four miles, particularly in the prairies (I call it the Sahara), nothing but huge tracts of land and fields – that is all the eye can see. You won’t meet anyone and you’re just glad to see the infinite numbers of cattle in the meadows and woods which graze here all year round, come winter or summer. And everything is so wild here, sometimes it is extremely bleak, enough to make a person despair.”
Certain scholars also find echoes of Negro spirituals or Indian ritual songs in this movement. From a formal standpoint, this movement is flawless: a broadly-arching and entirely unified lamento moving effortlessly towards its culmination roughly two thirds of the way through the movement, then gently receding to allow the music to return to its muted, melancholic frame of mind.
The third part of the quartet, the scherzo, provides an effective contrast to the second movement. It is constructed exclusively from a single, rhythmical theme whose terse, fragmentary character has much in common with the scherzo from Dvořák’s previous work, his New World Symphony. It comprises two contrasting segments which alternate with one another according to the scheme A–B–A–B–A. The more lively segment A is written in F major, while segment B in F minor is an augmentation of the main theme. The movement also contains a further variant of the main subject which, in segment A, is heard several times high up in the top register of the first violin. This is a stylisation of the song of the scarlet tanager which Dvořák would hear around Spillville while out on walks to Turkey River, and whose melody was spontaneously incorporated into his new work.
The last movement of the quartet is written in traditional rondo form following the scheme A–B–A–C–A–B–A and is characteristic of the typical finale, radiating joyfulness. The ostinato staccato rhythm accompanying both themes, A and B, calls to mind primitive Native American drum rhythms. An intermezzo of several bars, reminiscent of a piece of organ improvisation, is inserted between parts A and C, and the following theme C is almost vocal in character. Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek comments on this, stating: “A brief chorale imitation unfolds in pianissimo semitones, as if someone were softly improvising on the organ, and the following section does indeed remind us of church singing. Perhaps thoughts of morning worship in the little Spillville church flickered through Dvořák’s mind.” The composer attended Spillville church services almost daily and played the organ there himself on many occasions during morning mass. The meditative episode in part C is only of short duration; the main theme returns and, with it, also the overriding jubilant atmosphere of the movement, which Dvořák maximises in the coda in an expression of uninhibited joy.