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String Quartet No 12 in F major 'American', Op 96

composer

 
In 1892 Dvořák left Europe to take up a new position teaching at the recently founded National Conservatory of Music of America, in New York City. He was lured over the Atlantic by a lucrative salary and a contract that promised four months each summer at his ‘free and absolute disposal’. In 1893 Dvořák spent his first such summer in Spilville, Iowa, and the String Quartet No 12 in F major, Op 96, ‘American’ was composed there. Although he had written other chamber music during this period, a gap of twelve years separates the ‘American’ Quartet from his previous string quartet. Dvořák had already become fascinated with the songs of African Americans and Native Americans, along with folk songs of the Irish and Scottish immigrant populations. Although Dvořák does not directly quote any such songs in the quartet, it clearly shows some reference to their styles, just as the earlier ‘Slavonic’ Quartet demonstrates his absorption of Slavic folk music in his writing; Dvořák was not an ethnomusicologist or collector of folksong in the manner that Bartók was to become.

The first movement is in the pastoral key of F major. It starts with a simple semiquaver figure flitting between two notes in the violins, reminiscent of the Waldweben (‘forest murmurs’) in Wagner’s Siegfried. The viola then opens the movement with a lackadaisical, lyrical, pentatonic melody. The second subject, in A major, is also pentatonic in construction. In contrast with the earlier Quartet No 5, this development is notably short. It climaxes with a fugato passage, which leads back to the recapitulation. The second movement contains a passionate duet between the first violin and cello, accompanied by an extended viola ostinato (such repetitive rhythmic and melodic patterns are typical of Dvořák’s American chamber music). Following a gradual heightening to its climax the music subsides, with one last utterance of the melody by the cello. The third movement—a scherzo—contains yet another pentatonic theme, albeit transposed into the minor for the inner ‘trio’ section. It is supposed that one of the first violin’s melodic motifs is and imitation of the bird-call of a scarlet tanager, native to Spilville. Whether he was evoking the chugging of a steam train (Dvořák was famously a locomotive enthusiast) or Native-American drum rhythms, as others have argued, there can be no doubt there can be no doubt about the ‘American-ness’ of the finale, which closes the work in a spirited, boisterous fashion.

Musicologist Hartmut Schick claims that, ‘in America, Dvořák had written chamber music that finally breaks out of the European tradition, even further than do the string quartets of Arnold Schönberg’. There are certainly ways, beyond simply evoking a few characteristic sounds of America, in which the ‘American’ Quartet constitutes a bold step away from the European tradition of quartet writing. Among other unusual facets, we witness in this work a highly unusual degree of structural and motivic freedom, with new themes introduced late and unexpectedly, a pronounced reliance on rhythmic ostinato, and prolonged passages of deliberate harmonic simplicity. Even more remarkable is that Dvořák apparently sketched the outline of the work in merely three days, starting on 8 June, and finishing the work in its entirety by the end of the same month. He wrote on the manuscript thus: ‘Thanks be to the Lord God. I am satisfied. It went quickly.’

from notes by Rosalind Ventris © 2018

Recordings

Dvořák: String Quartets Nos 5 & 12
SIGCD555Download only 3 May 2019 Release

Details

Movement 1: Allegro ma non troppo
Track 5 on SIGCD555 [9'42] Download only 3 May 2019 Release
Movement 2: Lento
Track 6 on SIGCD555 [7'34] Download only 3 May 2019 Release
Movement 3: Molto vivace
Track 7 on SIGCD555 [3'57] Download only 3 May 2019 Release
Movement 4: Finale: Vivace ma non troppo
Track 8 on SIGCD555 [5'22] Download only 3 May 2019 Release

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