Antonín Dvořák, 1841-1904
Antonín Dvořák was the most prolific chamber music composer of the late nineteenth century. He wrote numerous excellent works in every standard form as well as for novel ensembles. His natural and seemingly effortless proclivity for chamber music resulted in a body of work that was unusual for a composer of the Romantic period, a time in which the exploration of large forces, extra-musical programs and expansive, subjective forms had little to do with this intimate and formalized genre most associated with the Classical era. It was characteristic of his time for Dvořák to express his musical nationalism; strong elements of his native Bohemian (i.e. Czech or Slavonic) folk music appear in his music in the dance and narrative forms of the furiant and the dumka respectively. But despite such general influences of form, rhythm and mood, Dvořák ’s music was always entirely original, characteristic, and, by the standards of the best chamber music, masterful. Though he was not a pioneer, his music has a freshness, a clarity of texture and a bounty of dramatic lyricism that makes it original.
Dvořák’s most well-known works date from the 1890’s during his three-year sojourn to America where he served as director of the National Conservatory in New York. They include the New World Symphony, the Viola Quintet and the “American” String Quartet. Dvořák encountered American folk music in the form of Native-American drumming and African-American spirituals, the latter of which he regarded as profoundly original music that might serve as a basis for a national style. Many find strong influences of both genres in Dvořák ’s own “American” compositions while others claim that his music is entirely consistent with his own European folk and classical traditions. Dvořák himself denied that he intentionally incorporated any American elements. Nonetheless, the “American” String Quartet in particular bears the stamp of the time and place of its composition.
Ironically, Dvořák composed the American quartet while on holiday in the predominantly Bohemian farming community of Spillville, Iowa. A spirit of relaxation and perhaps joyful homecoming inspired him to swiftly compose the quartet within a few weeks. Flowing, spacious, and bright, the music seems to reflect his disposition, if not, as some claim, the expanse of the American plains. The most pervasive aspect of the quartet supporting these qualities, as well as reflecting Dvořák’s general preoccupation with folk idioms, is the use of the pentatonic or five-note scale: nearly every primary and secondary theme throughout the quartet uses a form of it. Common in folk music around the world, the pentatonic scale omits the semitones found at the 4th and the 7th degrees of the more common classical scale yielding a specific quality of broadness, stability and a lack of tension (even in a minor key). Whatever influences or expressive intentions lay behind this choice, it imbues the quartet with a personality and a continuity that is distinctive and strongly evocative. The most particular trace of the quartet’s rural, American origin, however, is birdsong. The third movement Scherzo features the song of the Scarlet Tanager, a bird that Dvořák heard and transcribed while hiking the countryside. After an initial statement of a sprightly, rustic theme, the first violin sings the birdsong high in the treble range. The instantaneous evocation of dance, the outdoors, and the piercing simplicity of nature’s own music define a pure moment of folk music as high art.