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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