Dvorak String Quartet No.12, Op.96 “American” (The Smetana Quartet 1967)
Antonin Dvorak (1841- 1904)
String Quartet “American” No.12, Op.96
The Smetana Quartet
violin – Jiri Novak
violin – Lubomir Kostecky
viola – Milan Skampa
cello – Antonin Kohout
Recorded in 1967
String Quartet No. 12 (Dvořák)
The String Quartet in F major Op. 96, nicknamed American Quartet, 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.
Performance of the quartet by the Seraphina quartet (Caeli Smith and Sabrina Tabby, violins; Madeline Smith, viola; Genevieve Tabby, cello)
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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. Dvořák had come to Spillville through Josef Jan Kovařík who had finished violin studies at the Prague Conservatory and was about to return to Spillville, his home in the United States, when Dvořák offered him a position as secretary, which Josef Jan accepted, so he came to live with the Dvořák family in New York. He told Dvořák about Spillville, where his father Jan Josef was a schoolmaster, which led to Dvořák deciding to spend the summer of 1893 there.
In that environment, and surrounded by beautiful nature, Dvořák felt very much at ease. Writing to a friend he described his state of mind, away from hectic New York: “I have been on vacation since 3 June here in the Czech village of Spillville and I won’t be returning to New York until the latter half of September. The children arrived safely from Europe and we’re all happy together. We like it very much here and, thank God, I am working hard and I’m healthy and in good spirits.” He composed the quartet shortly after the New World Symphony, before that work had been performed.
Dvořák sketched the quartet in three days and completed it in thirteen more days, finishing the score with the comment “Thank God! I am content. It was fast.” It was his second attempt to write a quartet in F major: his first effort, 12 years earlier, produced only one movement. The American Quartet proved a turning point in Dvořák’s chamber music output: for decades he had toiled unsuccessfully to find a balance between his overflowing melodic invention and a clear structure. In the American Quartet it finally came together. Dvořák defended the apparent simplicity of the piece: “When I wrote this quartet in the Czech community of Spillville in 1893, I wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did.”
Negro, American or other influences?
For the London premiere of his New World symphony, Dvořák wrote: “As to my opinion I think that the influence of this country (it means the folk songs as are Negro, Indian, Irish etc.) is to be seen, and that this and all other works (written in America) differ very much from my other works as well as in couleur as in character,…”
Dvořák’s appreciation of African-American music is documented: 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.” Dvořák said: “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” For its presumed association with African-American music, the quartet was referred to with nicknames such as Negro and Nigger, before being called the American Quartet. Such older nicknames, without negative connotations at the time, were used until the 1950s.
Dvořák wrote (in a letter he sent from America shortly after composing the quartet): “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.” 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.
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A characteristic, unifying element throughout the quartet is the use of the pentatonic scale. This scale gives the whole quartet its open, simple character, a character that is frequently identified with American folk music. However, the pentatonic scale is common in many ethnic musics worldwide, and Dvořák had composed pentatonic music, being familiar with such Slavonic folk music examples, before coming to America.
On the whole, specific American influences are doubted: “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 because of its composition during Dvořák’s American tour.”
Some have heard suggestions of a locomotive in the last movement, recalling Dvořák’s love of railroads.
The one confirmed musical reference in the quartet is to the song of the scarlet tanager, an American songbird. 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.
I. Allegro ma non troppo
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 recapitulation.
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.
III. Molto vivace
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.
IV. Finale: vivace ma non troppo
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.
Performance and influence
In a first “private” performance of the quartet, in Spillville, June 1893, Dvořák himself played first violin, Jan Josef Kovařík second violin, daughter Cecilie Kovaříková viola, and son Josef Jan Kovařík the cello.
The first public performance of the quartet was by the Kneisel quartet in Boston in January 1894. Burghauser mentions press notices in New York as well as Boston, the first New York Herald, 18 December 1893.
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.
- Václav Neumann (1920-1995), from 1943 to 1945
- Jaroslav Rybenský, from 1945 to 1947
- Jiří Novák (1924-2010), since 1947
- Lubomír Kostecký (born 1922)
- Jiří Neumann, from 1943 to 1945
- Václav Neumann, from 1945 to 1947
- Jaroslav Rybenský, from 1947 to 1956
- Milan Škampa (born 1928), since 1956
- Antonín Kohout (born 1919)
Origins and activities
The Smetana Quartet arose from the Quartet of the Czech Conservatory, which was founded in 1943 (during the Nazi occupation) in Prague by Antonín Kohout, the cellist. With Jaroslav Rybenský and Lubomír Kostecký as first and second violins, and Václav Neumann as violist, the group gave its first performance as the Smetana Quartet on 6 November 1945, at the Municipal Library in Prague. Neumann left to pursue conducting in 1947, at which point Rybenský went to the viola desk and Jiří Novák (who shared first violin desk with Josef Vlach, founder of the Vlach Quartet, under Vaclav Talich in the Czech Chamber Orchestra) came in as first violin.
By 1949 the group had official connections with the Czech Philharmonic. The first foreign tour was in 1949, to Poland, and the first recording was of a quartet by Bedřich Smetana in 1950. Rybenský was obliged to retire after ill health in 1952, and was replaced by Milan Škampa. The performers were appointed professors at the Academy of Musical Arts in 1967. Of their many recordings, those made at that time for German Electrola are considered particularly fine.
For many years this group, which has been called the finest Czech quartet of its time, played the Czech repertoire from memory, giving these works a special intensity and intimacy.