String Quintet

Antonín Dvořák

String Quintet in Eb major

B180, Op. 97 • “American”

About this work

Dvorak's E flat String Quintet ("American") was written around the same time as the Symphony No. 9 ("New World"); like that famous work, it is based partly on Native and Black American themes. Unlike the salon atmosphere that characterized string quartets of the era, the American Quintet is full of wonderful, populist tunes, even though their pentatonic origins may be more Slavonic than American. The String Quartet No. 2 received its premiere on January 12, 1894, at New York's Carnegie Hall.

The direct impetus for this quintet came on Dvorák's first long vacation in the United States, at the Czech settlement of Spillville in northeast Iowa. During his stay, a band of American Indians arrived to sell medicinal herbs to the locals and stage a celebration. Dvorák came into contact with the Indians on a daily basis, and on two or three occasions he attended small gatherings at a local inn, where they performed their traditional songs and dances for him.

The Czech-American violinist Josef J. Kovarik recalled that one of the melodies he heard the Indians sing at the time bore a resemblance to the second subject of the quintet's first movement. Indeed, at bars 63-64, Dvorák incorporates the transformed fragment of an Indian song -- a so called "Indian drum rhythm." Other "Indian" elements that appear in the movement, as well as the finale, include pentatonic themes and short, oft-repeated phrases.

No less striking is the Larghetto movement -- a set of variations that follows Haydn's example by having a double theme, half in major and half in minor. Dvorák had originally drafted it as a setting of S.F. Smith's "American National Anthem" (My country, 'tis of thee); he even hinted at the time in a letter to his publisher, Simrock, that he was considering expanding it into an independent work for baritone, chorus and orchestra. The Finale, has distant precursors in the cimbalom theme in the finale of Schubert's Trio in E flat, Op. 100, as well as the presto of Smetana's Trio in G minor.

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