Czech composer Antonin Dvorak [1841–1904] spent three years in America in the early 1890s. He took up the position of Director at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. During this time he spent a summer holiday in Spillville, a small Czech community in Iowa. While there, he completed his Symphony No. 9 and wrote a string quartet and a string quintet. The quartet, Opus 96 No. 12 became known as The American.
The distinctive sound of this piece comes mainly from the use of pentatonic scales. These scales only have five notes as compared to the seven notes in a normal scale. Dvorak also found inspiration in African-American spirituals, native Indian music and American folksong.
The opening movement sets a mood that continues throughout this piece with the use of pentatonics, giving the music a clear ‘open’ sound. The incisive melody of the opening theme is stated on the cello and then picked up by a violin. The intensity rises and the melody is repeated on the violins. This is very powerful music. A new mood is started with the violins crafting a gentle melody. Now we have a recapitulation of the opening theme and several key changes impinge on the development of this theme. The intensity rises, as the opening theme is reworked, before a change to a minor key brings interest. Further variations are played out. A slow episode ensues, evoking an earlier sub-theme. Three restatements of the opening phrase, at volume, conclude the movement. This is a fabulous piece of writing.
The second movement is a slow lament and this time uses a minor pentatonic scale, giving it a graceful, mesmeric quality. It is marked lento and opens with a slow cello motif; the violin enters with a very attractive melody. It is melancholy, and the melody is developed over a subtle background. The melody is longing, until a chord change brings a little optimism to the piece. The sadness returns and again, another chord change brings with it a slightly more positive feeling. Remaining on the edge of melancholy, the composer develops some wonderful melodies and violin follows violin in a stunning, very gentle moment. The feeling drops back to one violin with subtle accompaniment. The violin is longing, in a most passionate way. The cello enters and repeats a violin phrase twice, in different registers. The violin returns for a faded end.
The next movement starts in a positive manner which promotes a sprightly feeling. A slow phase quickly gives way to more optimistic music. A quote from the first movement is reworked. Shimmering violins give way to a rhythmic pulse and there is much ado with the violins expressing busy melodies. Now we have further repeats of earlier themes, which lead to a conclusion.
The finale has a folk-like character with the cello playing on the two and the four beat, which enhances the folk feeling. A measure of descending tonalities follow, and the intensity briefly rises. Not for long however, and we move into an ever so slow passage. A violin gently struts before the intensity rises again and we have a recapitulation of the opening melody. A moderate tempo ensues and the violins investigate the melody. Now there is a sweeping feeling which builds to a crescendo, which finishes the music on a strong flourish.
This is a magnificent, magical piece. I’m not ashamed to pronounce Dvorak as one of my favourite Romantic composers.
There is some discussion as to the extent of the influence of folk themes in the work. It has been suggested that there are direct links to extant folk themes but, to my knowledge no one has ever come up with an example. I believe the themes acted more as inspiration, rather than influence. Dvorak was already familiar with pentatonic scales as they are found in folk music all over the world, and European composers have used them extensively.
Opus 96 has become one of the most popular quartets in the idiom and hence, can be found on many recordings. My recommendation is the Janacek String Quartet which is coupled with the String Quintet, Opus 97 that was also written on the summer holiday, played by members of the Vienna Octet. It is still available on the Decca label. However, there is a marvellous two-CD version of the above performances coupled with two earlier works, a string quintet and a string sextet. This set is on the Australian budget label Eloquence.
I shall leave you with a quote from Dvorak – ‘I know that I would never have written my quartet if I had never seen America’.
Listenability: A magnificent example of the genre.