Dvorak String Quartet no. 12 in F major Op. 96 ‘American’

performed by the Prager Streichquartett, or below by the Cleveland Quartet

This is one of those pieces that impedes the discovery of all the composer’s other works in the form. We’ll eventually get around to Saint-Saëns’ organ symphony, but it’s the one that makes it impossible to go find recordings of the other symphonies, even when I specifically search for the number, key, and year of the other works. This one’s the same. Go do a search for “Dvorak string quartet no. 1 in A” and see how many results you get for no. 12 or 10. It’s maddening.

But as we shall see, there is a reason why this work is so outrageously famous. Basically, it’s just straightforwardly, simply beautiful.

If you haven’t gone and listened to it already, hurry up and go listen to my conversation with Lisa Casal-Galietta over on the podcast (the article featuring the episode is here). Besides being an inspiring conversation about a wonderful group of musicians, I open the episode with a very brief story about Dvorak’s American quartet. It seemed a perfect tie-in to the things that the Red Door Chamber Players represent. The story is as follows.

As some people may not know, Dvorak actually lived in America for about three years, acting as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Believe it or not, he came with the purpose of trying to help America find its voice in classical music, and was a strong believer that that particular voice lie in African-American and Native American folk song, spirituals, etc. It might seem strange that a Czech composer from Bohemia was going to try to help an English-speaking nation ‘from the new world’ to find or cultivate their own voice, but in reality, Dvorak was an exceptional person to do this. His love of folk tunes, strong nationalism for his own culture, and his inherent musicality are all factors that show he had the skills for making this happen.

In any case, in the summer of 1893, he and his family took a their summer vacation in a small town in the northeast corner of Iowa, where, believe it or not, there was a Czech community, in the town of Spillville. Spillville was originally to be Spielville, after its founder Joseph Spielman, but people mess things up and Spillville stuck. It’s the site of the oldest Czech Catholic church in the United States. Spillville’s population reached 400 people only once in the censuses of the 20th century, hitting 415 in the 1980 census.

But its most famous claim was this little work that was penned within its borders. Within a matter of a few days, the composer had sketched the work out, and had completed the score within a few weeks, and he expressed his delight at it, its simplicity, his swiftness in completing it, and said “papa Haydn” was with him the entire way. Things don’t have to be complicated to be good.

The work likely got its actual first performance somewhere in some small hall or living room or something in Spillville, but had its first official, public performance in Boston, and the work was enormously successful. I’ll also say here that the reason we went from the first quartet yesterday to the 12th today is because it sets in context the composer’s state of mind for the two works of his we’ll be talking about midweek, and that’s rather important, I think.

But why is it ‘American’? Well, Dvorak channels the spiritual or folk-tune sounds of local music, which, actually almost regardless of what folk music you’re speaking of, is very often pentatonic-based. The presentation here is one of folksy, down-to-earth rustic music, with a simplicity, clarity, and unadulterated beauty, like the smell of the wet ground as the sun rises over a wide-open, green landscape.

The first movement is that unencumbered breath of fresh air on a clear morning, sitting up and stretching in bed as the sunshine pours in, with the quiet chatter of family in the other room, some picturesque farm estate, picket fences and all the rest. It’s indescribably melodic but never trite; it’s full of depth and a fragrant complexity, the opening tremolos reveal the first melodic line that gets the piece underway, and it reappears here and there as the members of the quartet tell the story. The first movement is the longest, and every moment seems perfectly placed, from the opening melody and the pizzicato in the background, to the softer, more pensive second theme the first movement presents. It’s just sumptuously beautiful, a thing of perfection. The first movement, already breathtaking, puts us in the perfect mood to sit back and take in what follows.

The second movement tells a more somber story, a personal narrative, something like “the people of this land”, or even those who lost that land, the Native Americans. It’s nostalgic, a hopeful one, but not completely free from a tinge of mourning. It remains tasteful, but it puts in contrast the carefree buoyancy of the opening movement, grounding it back in reality. Dvorak’s talent for melody, if not readily apparent in the first movement, tugs on our heartstrings a little more here.

The third movement is our scherzo, and it pats us on the back and tells us to enjoy ourselves. It’s not any kind of twangy square-dance or anything, but it’s festive, rustic, with a not-so-subtle charm that can do nothing but bring a smile to the face. It’s instantly chipper, but even it has its contrasting, more lyrical moments. The quaintness of textures and string quartet writing are sublime here, as throughout the whole work. It has a surprising seriousness of tone here and there in light of the cheerfulness of the scherzo proper, and the movement ends quietly, leading us into the galloping energy of the finale.

And here is where the real energy and buoyant pleasantness of the American sound return. The finale is marked vivace, ma non troppo. I don’t know how you couldn’t envision the American landscape, wide open fields, historic white homes, red barns, the rustic, weathered, welcoming, hospitable culture, the down-to-earth nature of it all, the genuinely unpretentious nature of it all, and this must have been what Dvorak experienced and felt in his time out in the country, a part of America that I, in all my decades of living in the country (up until I moved away nearly a decade ago) I have never visited. What a contrast to the busy hubbub of New York life. I won’t say the finale brings us a hoedown, necessarily, but what a bundle of fun it is! The entire quartet is so approachable, so unassuming and yet still exquisite.

I understand the Red Door folks are working on this quartet to perform sometime soon, so if you’re in their neck of the woods, do go check them out. This is a quartet that you can’t keep from getting into you, from being absorbed into its simple, irresistible beauty.

Also, we’ll be hearing this coming week, as I’m sure you might have already guessed, what homesickness sounds like to Dvorak and what he did about it, so do stay tuned for more from Dvorak this week.


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