String Quartet No.12

Antonín Dvořák

String Quartet No.12 in F major

B179, Op. 96 • “American”

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Antonín Dvorák hadn't composed a string quartet in 12 years when, in the summer of 1893, he sat down to compose the String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96; the resulting "American" String Quartet is, along with the "New World" Symphony and perhaps a handful of the Slavonic Dances, the only Dvorák music that many music-lovers have ever learned to recognize.

Dvorák spent three years in the United States (1892-1895) as the director of the newly-founded National Conservatory of Music in New York; it was during a vacation in rural Iowa that this beloved string quartet was written. Dvorák's progress on the work was so quick and satisfying that he scrawled out a sentence of gratitude to God at the end of his first draft! On the following New Year's Day the quartet received its Boston premiere, and it lost little time sewing itself into the fabric of the world's quartet repertoire.

There is more of America to the Opus 96 quartet than just its name and place of composition -- Dvorák was fascinated by Native American and African American music, and throughout the "American" Quartet we can hear these new colors mixing in with his own usual quartet method. Many of the themes are pentatonically derived (the pentatonic scale being composed of five notes and containing no semitones); syncopation and snappy rhythm are found in abundance.

The viola gets things moving in the Allegro ma non troppo first movement with a happy, workaday tune that exploits the warm growl of its lowest register. The inviting A major melody that rounds off the exposition has just the slightest touch of America to it, and we are made to love it all the more for its reticence on that matter. A peculiar fugato in F minor, begun with enthusiasm by the second violinist, intrudes upon the development just before the lovely recapitulation.

It may have been 12 years since he had last produced a slow movement for quartet, but Dvorák's legendary slow-movement touch is as golden as ever in the Lento second movement of Op. 96 (no mean feat, as the previous quartet slow movement -- that of Op. 61 in C major -- is a masterpiece of its kind). The scherzo is Dvorák's usual rhythmically playful thing; according to Dvorák, birdsong is quoted by the first violin in the main music.

The finale hustles and bustles along on a very energetic, syncopated rhythm in the second violin and viola that shortly transforms itself into a patchwork of shifting accents. The first violin sings, first capriciously and then voluptuously, atop this motoric accompaniment. A completely different tone is drawn during the somber central portion.