Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dvořák - String Quartet No. 12 'American'

During Dvořák's tenure as Director of the National Conservatory in New York he spent one summer in 1893 in the small town of Spillville, Iowa. The town had a Czech community and spending the summer there gave him a break from the hustle and bustle of New York, eased his homesickness and gave him time to compose. He wrote three works during that Spillville vacation; String Quintet No. 3, Symphony No. 9, and String Quartet No. 12.

The music of America, especially Negro spirituals and songs, inspired Dvořák to write works that used themes reminiscent of the folk music he heard. Dvořák talked about how American music inspired him in a letter written in 1893:
"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. 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..."
Dvořák was also quoted in the newspaper New York Herald as saying:
 "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."
Dvořák didn't use any song directly in these works, but he used the pentatonic scale (represented by the five black keys on the piano) in  the original themes he used. The pentatonic scale is used in many kinds of folk music around the world and Dvořák was familiar with it from his native Czech folk music. His composer's ear picked up on the nuances that made American music unique and he imitated them in his themes.  The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro ma non troppo - The viola states the first theme over a simple accompaniment. The theme is expanded until there is a transition to the lyrical second theme. The two themes are repeated, and the development section begins with the first theme. The development ends with a short fugal section. The recapitulation repeats the first theme and prepares for the key change given to the second theme. After the second theme is worked through there is a short coda and the movement ends.

II. Lento - The melody that predominates in this movement is, like the two themes of the first movement, is predominantly pentatonic, but it is in the minor mode of D minor.  The sound and style of the theme captures the sound and mood of American Negro or Native American music that many listeners thought Dvořák used an authentic American melody but it is a Dvořák original theme. The theme is developed, and returns in the cello as the other strings accompany it with pizzicato notes alternating with bowed notes. The theme gently winds down and the movement ends with one last sad chord.

Scarlet tanager
III. Molto vivace - Dvořák's F major scherzo is an energetic tune full of jumps and offbeats. Supposedly he heard the birdsong of the scarlet tanager on his walks in the woods around Spillvile and used the song in the scherzo. His treatment of the song can be heard high in the first violin.  The following section which serves as the trio is a variant of the scherzo played in F minor. The scherzo and trio are played through again with slight variations in the trio. The scherzo plays once more, the tempo slackens and the movement ends gently.

IV. Finale: Vivace ma non troppo -  The main theme is an energetic one and is repeated four times with new material sandwiched between the repeats. The main theme appears for the fourth time and a short coda whips the music to a faster pace and the movement ends.

Dvořák's three-year tenure as Director of the National Conservatory in New York City changed him as a composer and  influenced on American composers to rethink their musical models and to change them from a European style to a more idiomatic American style. 

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