String Quartet No. 12 (Dvořák)
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 visit to the United States. Dvořák wrote that the quartet - one of the most popular in the chamber music repertoire - is influenced by American folk music. Some analysts have tried to identify specifically American folk motifs in the quartet, though many consider these attempts as mere speculation. Whatever the influence of American music on the quartet, the quartet itself has served as a model for later American composers.
Dvořák composed the Quartet in 1893 during a summer vacation from his teaching post in New York. He spent his vacation in the town of Spillville, Iowa, which was home to a Czech immigrant community. (It was his second attempt to write a quartet in F major; his first effort, 12 years earlier, produced only one movement.) He composed the quartet 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. 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...".
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. Others have heard suggestions of a locomotive in the last movement, recalling Dvořák's love of railroads. The association with Negro spiritual music led to the quartet's original nickname, the "Nigger" Quartet.
Most analysts, however, fail to see specific American influences in the quartet. "In fact the only American thing about the work is that it was written there," writes Paul Griffiths. "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 to the work because of its composition during Dvořák's American tour."
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.
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Molto vivace
- Finale : vivace ma non troppo
A characteristic, unifying element throughout the quartet is the use of the pentatonic scale play (help·info). This scale gives the whole quartet its open, simple character, a character that is frequently identified with American folk music.
|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.||
|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.||
|The development ends with a fugato section that leads into the recapulation.||
|After the first theme is restated in the recapitulation, there is a cello solo that bridges to the second theme.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|The final movement is in a traditional rondo form, ABACABA. Again, the main melody is pentatonic.||
|The B section is more lyrical, but continues in the spirit of the first theme.||
|The C section is a chorale theme.||
A typical performance lasts around 30 minutes.
Performance and influence
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.
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.
- Šourek. p.89
- Letter to Emil Kozanek, September 15, 1893, translated in Letters of Composers Gertrude Norman and Miriam Lubell Shrifte, editors (1946, Alfred A Knopf, Inc.)
- 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
- Butterworth, p. 107
- Butterworth, p. 89
- John Clapham, "Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak", in Chamber Music, edited by Alec Robertson (1963, Penguin Books Ltd.)
- Paul Griffiths, The String Quartet, A History(1983, Thames and Hudson ISBN 0-500-27383-9)
- Lucy Miller, Adams to Zemlinsky (2006, Concert Artists Guild, ISBN 1-892862-09-3), p. 123.
- Miller, p. 124
- 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)
- Butterworth, p. 110
- 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
- String Quartet No. 12: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Performance of the quartet by the Seraphina quartet (Caeli Smith and Sabrina Tabby, violins; Madeline Smith, viola; Genevieve Tabby, cello) at Wikimedia Commons: