Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major: The “American”

During the summer of 1893, Antonín Dvořák took his habitual morning walks, not through the meadows of his native Bohemia, but into the vast, rolling prairie of northeastern Iowa.

It was here, in the small Czech immigrant enclave of Spillville, that Dvořák completed the “New World” Symphony, and then, in just over two weeks, wrote his String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96. Having relocated from Prague the previous September to begin his three-year tenure as director of New York’s fledgling National Conservatory of Music, Dvořák relished the four-month Iowa sojourn, writing to a friend,

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.

Although Dvořák did not provide the subtitle, String Quartet No. 12 has come to be known as the “American” Quartet. (The composer referred to it simply as “the second composition written in America”). Some listeners hear echos of African-American spirituals and plantation songs in the Quartet’s free-spirited pentatonic melodies, as well as Native American elements. Others correctly point out the similarities in vocabulary between these American influences and the Bohemian-Slavic folk music of Dvořák’s native land. Regardless, there is something satisfyingly direct and straightforward about this music which reflects the rugged frontier landscape. Unfolding with an effortless sense of melody, it is music of wide open vistas, refreshing breezes, and radiant sunshine. With an inscription at the end of the score’s initial sketches, Dvořák noted the ease with which the Quartet was written: “Thanks be to the Lord God. I am satisfied. It went quickly.” Later, he recalled that “dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simple. And it’s good that it did.”

In the opening of the first movement (Allegro ma non troppo), the two violins and cello enter sequentially as floating strands of sound. A shimmering sonic backdrop comes into focus, over which the viola boldly introduces the first theme. A moment later, the theme is answered in the soprano voice of the first violin. The cello’s joyfully dancing pizzicato lands on unexpected beats, providing a delirious rhythmic counterpoint. The key of F major evokes pastoral landscapes, while the five-note pentatonic scale (the black notes of the piano) on which the theme is based conveys a blissful, serene stasis. Arriving in a contemplative A major, the second theme is filled with tenderness, warmth, and nostalgia.

In the second movement (Lento), a simple theme, at once soulful and lamenting, rises over a pulsating ostinato. This underlying rhythmic figure suggests a simple, repetitive labor—something akin to the oars of a boat steadfastly hitting the water. The movement develops as an intimate song (or spiritual) without words, crescendoing to form a passionate climax, falling back, and ultimately drifting away into murky depths.

The third movement (Molto vivace) is a modified scherzo made up of two contrasting sections (A-B-A-B-A). The “B” section is actually a shadowy, augmentation of the jubilant, dancing “A” section. Listen carefully to the swirling rhythmic interplay, and you will hear the extent to which this music “grooves.” High in the first violin, Dvořák quotes a birdsong he heard in Iowa, originally thought to be that of the Scarlet Tanager, but now believed to be the red-eyed vireo.

The opening bars of the rondo finale (Vivace ma non troppo) spring to life as an uptempo variation on the pentatonic theme of the previous movement. As cinders fly, the exhilarating music is propelled forward with chugging, alternating rhythms evocative of a speeding steam locomotive, a mode of travel which fascinated Dvořák. A brief chorale in the middle of the movement suggests an organ improvisation. The congregation of Spillville’s Saint Wenceslaus Church, the oldest Czech Catholic Church in the United States, might have heard something similar when Dvořák played for services during his summer holiday. Recalling the Quartet’s opening measures, the coda section concludes with a spirited dialogue between the first violin and viola.

The Kneisel Quartet gave the premiere of Dvořák’s “American” Quartet in Boston on New Year’s Day, 1894. It was so warmly received that the ensemble went on to perform the work fifty times that year. This celebrated 1991 recording features the Cleveland Quartet:

Five Great Recordings

Featured Image: the house where Dvořák stayed in Spillville, Iowa during the summer of 1893

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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