String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96, “American”

Fed up with mostly German and foreign classical music filling our concert halls, Jeanette Thurber lured Dvořák to New York City in 1892 to help us develop our own. Who better than Antonín? He had distinguished himself in his native Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) as a “nationalist” composer who could distill the sounds of his country into polished works for the sophisticated stage. Jeanette installed him as the Director of her newly-established National Conservatory of Music, and she gave him his marching orders: Come up with a distinctive brand of American classical music. Whether he complied or not has been a hotly debated question for 120 years. Those who argue that he did point to his customary use of the pentatonic scale that delivers the melodies in his American compositions, a scale involving just five notes. To hear the sound, play the black keys on the piano, one after another. This pleasant scale is characteristic of native American music, but it is also prevalent in Czech folk music and the pieces he composed before coming to the United States; it is indigenous to folk music worldwide.

After he returned to Bohemia, however, he wrote to a conductor who had programmed the New World Symphony and told him to “leave out the nonsense about my having made use of American melodies. I have only composed in the spirit of such American natural melodies”. Dvořák later called all his works written here “genuine Bohemian music”.

In any event, Dvořák wrote this wonderful quartet during the summer of 1893 while on a working vacation in – of all places – Spillville, Iowa. Spillville was an agricultural community whose small population included a robust Czech enclave and surrounded by his family, Dvořák felt right at home. He described his intent as wanting to write “something that is melodious and simple”, and this gorgeous comfortable pastoral music is the result.

In the first movement of his “American” String Quartet, Dvořák presents two principal themes; the resolute first sung with a husky richness by the viola, Dvořák’s instrument; the second, intoned by the first violin, and evokes the spiritual gravity of the “New World Symphony”. Movement two is a yearning reverie. One scholar called it a sort of “Bohemian blues”. Movement three is a dancelike scherzo. Dvořák was an ardent birdwatcher. He loved their songs and incorporated many of them in his symphonies. In this movement, the high violin tune was inspired by the call of a Scarlet Tanager he encountered in Spillville. The Finale is an expression of buoyant good humor, punctuated by hymn-like material.

Unlike many of his composer colleagues, Dvořák was a happy man. He was neither neurotic nor pursued by dark demons. His music reflects his optimistic grateful outlook on life, and let me put it this way: I like it, and I hope you do too. (Come to think of it, I like all music.)