String Quartet No. 12 (Dvořák)

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The last page of the autograph score with Dvořák's inscription: "Finished on 10 June 1893 in Spillville. Thanks God. I'm satisfied. It went quickly"

The American string quartet, opus 96 in F major, is the 12th string quartet composed by Antonín Dvořák. It was written in 1893, during Dvořák's time in the United States. The quartet is one of the most popular in the chamber music repertoire.


Dvořák composed the Quartet in 1893 during a summer vacation from his position as Director (1892-1895) of the National Conservatory in New York. He spent his vacation in the town of Spillville, Iowa, which was home to a Czech immigrant community. He composed the quartet (his second attempt to write a quartet in F major; his first effort, 12 years earlier, produced only one movement[1]) shortly after the New World Symphony, sketching the manuscript in three days and completing it in three weeks. "As for my new Symphony, the F major String Quartet and the Quintet (composed here in Spillville) – I should never have written these works 'just so' if I hadn't seen America," wrote Dvořák in a letter in 1893.[2] In his description of the New World symphony, Dvořák was more specific: "As to my opinion, I think that the influence of this country (it means the folk songs that are Negro, Indian, Irish, etc.) is to be seen, and that this [the symphony] and all other works written in America differ very much from my earlier works, as much in colour as in character...".[3]

Listeners have tried to identify specific American motifs in the quartet. Some have claimed that the theme of the second movement is based on a Negro spiritual, or perhaps on a Kickapoo Indian tune, which Dvořák heard during his sojourn at Spillville.[4] Others have heard suggestions of a locomotive in the last movement, recalling Dvořák's love of railroads.[5] One feature of the quartet is the extensive use of the pentatonic scale, common in the music of spirituals and other ethnic musics worldwide.

Most analysts, however, fail to see specific American influences in the quartet, aside perhaps from its use of pentatonic scales. "In fact the only American thing about the work is that it was written there," writes Paul Griffiths.[6] "The specific American qualities of the so-called "American" Quartet are not easily identifiable, writes Lucy Miller, "...Better to look upon the subtitle as simply one assigned because of its composition during Dvořák's American tour."[7] Dvořák himself gave the subtitle "From the New World" to his symphony. To the Quartet he gave no subtitle himself, but there is the comment "The second composition written in America."[8]

The lack of identifiably American motifs notwithstanding, there is no doubt that Dvořák was deeply impressed by the music he heard in America, and specifically spirituals. Harry T. Burleigh, a baritone and later a composer, who knew Dvořák while a student at the National Conservatory, said, "I sang our Negro songs for him very often, and before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the spirit of the old Spirituals."[9] Dvořák said "In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."[10]

Dvořák's transcription of the song of the scarlet tanager (top) and the appearance of the song in the third movement of the quartet.

The one confirmed musical reference in the quartet is to the song of the scarlet tanager. Dvořák was annoyed by this bird's insistent chattering, and transcribed its song in his notebook. The song appears as a high, interrupting strain in the first violin part in the third movement.[11]


The Quartet is scored for the usual complement of two violins, viola, and cello, and comprises four movements:[12]

  • Allegro ma non troppo
  • Lento
  • Molto vivace
  • Finale : vivace ma non troppo

A characteristic, unifying element throughout the quartet is the use of the pentatonic scaleAbout this sound play . This scale gives the whole quartet its open, simple character, a character that is frequently identified with American folk music. The first several measures of each movement are shown in a thematic catalogue.[13] The New World Symphony is much less pentatonic.[14]

The opening theme of the quartet is purely pentatonic, played by the viola, with a rippling F major chord in the accompanying instruments. This same F major chord continues without harmonic change throughout the first 12 measures of the piece. The movement then goes into a bridge, developing harmonically, but still with the open, triadic sense of openness and simplicity.
First theme of the first movement, played by the Seraphina Quartet.
The second theme, in A major, is also primarily pentatonic, but ornamented with melismatic elements reminiscent of Gypsy or Czech music. The movement moves to a development section that is much denser harmonically and much more dramatic in tempo and color.
Second theme of the first movement.
The development ends with a fugato section that leads into the recapitulation.
Fugato at end of development
After the first theme is restated in the recapitulation, there is a cello solo that bridges to the second theme.
Cello bridge in recapitulation
The theme of the second movement is the one that interpreters have most tried to associate with a Negro spiritual or with an American Indian tune. The simple melody, with the pulsing accompaniment in second violin and viola, does indeed recall spirituals or Indian ritual music. It is written using the same pentatonic scale as the first movement, but in the minor (D minor) rather than the major. The theme is introduced in the first violin, and repeated in the cello. Dvořák develops this thematic material in an extended middle section, then repeats the theme in the cello with an even thinner accompaniment that is alternately bowed and pizzicato.
Theme of the second movement
The third movement is a variant of the traditional scherzo. It has the form ABABA: the A section is a sprightly, somewhat quirky tune, full of off-beats and cross-rhythms. The song of the scarlet tanager appears high in the first violin.
First section of the Scherzo movement. Listen for the song of the scarlet tanager high in the first violin
The B section is actually a variation of the main scherzo theme, played in minor, at half tempo, and more lyrical. In its first appearance it is a legato line, while in the second appearance the lyrical theme is played in triplets, giving it a more pulsing character.
Second section of the scherzo
The final movement is in a traditional rondo form, ABACABA. Again, the main melody is pentatonic.
Main theme of the last movement
The B section is more lyrical, but continues in the spirit of the first theme.
"B" section of the rondo
The C section is a chorale theme.
"C" section of the rondo

A typical performance lasts around 30 minutes.

Performance and influence[edit]

Dvořák first played through the quartet with his student Josef Jan Kovarik on second violin, and Kovarik's two children on viola and cello. The first public performance was by the Kneisel quartet in Boston in January 1894.[15]

While the influence of American folk song is not explicit in the quartet, the impact of Dvořák's quartet on later American compositions is clear. Following Dvořák, a number of American composers turned their hands to the string quartet genre, including John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, George Whitefield Chadwick, and Arthur Foote. "The extensive use of folk-songs in 20th century American music and the 'wide-open-spaces' atmosphere of 'Western' film scores may have at least some of their origins" in Dvořák's new American style, writes Butterworth.[16]


  1. ^ Šourek. p.89
  2. ^ Letter to Emil Kozanek, September 15, 1893, translated in Letters of Composers, Gertrude Norman and Miriam Lubell Shrifte, editors (1946, Alfred A Knopf, Inc.)
  3. ^ Program notes written by Dvořák for the first London performance of the New World symphony, quoted in Neil Butterworth, Dvořák: his life and times (1980, Midas Books, ISBN 0-85936-142-X), p. 103
  4. ^ Butterworth, p. 107
  5. ^ Butterworth, p. 89
  6. ^ Paul Griffiths, The String Quartet, A History(1983, Thames and Hudson ISBN 0-500-27383-9)
  7. ^ Lucy Miller, Adams to Zemlinsky (2006, Concert Artists Guild, ISBN 1-892862-09-3), p. 123.
  8. ^ Burghauser, Jarmil. Antonin Dvořák: Thematic Catalogue, with a bibliography and a Survey of Life and Work, Bãrenreiter Supraphon, Prague, 1996, p. 302
  9. ^ Jean E. Snyder, `A great and noble school of music: Dvořák, Harry T. Burleigh, and the African American Spiritual.' In Tibbetts, John C., Ed., Dvořák in America: 1892-1895, Amadeus Press, Portland, OR 1993, p. 131
  10. ^ Interviewed by James Creelman, New York Herald, May 21, 1893
  11. ^ Miller, p. 124
  12. ^ This analysis is based on analyses in Griffiths, Miller, and "Antonin Dvořák" in Walter Willson Cobbett, Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music(1923, Oxford University Press)
  13. ^ Burghauser, 1996, p. 302.
  14. ^ Burghauser 1996, pp. 299-300.
  15. ^ Butterworth, p. 110
  16. ^ Butterworth, p. 95


  • Otakar Šourek; Roberta Finlayson Samsour (Translator). The Chamber Music of Antonín Dvořák. Czechoslovakia: Artia. 
  • Dvořák, Antonín: Quartetto XII. Fa maggiore. Score. Prague: Editio Supraphon, 1991. S 1304

External links[edit]