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Dvořák: String Quartet No. 12

In an interview in the New York Herald Tribune just a few weeks before he wrote this quartet, Antonín Dvořák stated, “The future music of this country must be founded on what are called negro melodies.This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States … I myself have gone to the simple, half-forgotten tunes of the Bohemian peasants for hints in my most serious work.” Both statements are applicable to the popular and richly evocative String Quartet No.12, which blends, to a remarkable degree, a clearly American musical idiom with that of the Bohemian countryside. When this quartet was written in 1893, Dvorak was head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He and his family took their summer vacations in the Czech colony of Spillville, Iowa, where he wrote this quartet as well as the “New World” Symphony No. 9 and the Quintet op. 97. That happy, relaxed atmosphere must have been very conducive to composition. Dvořák wrote the quartet in just three days.

The first movement, pervaded by jaunty, angular fiddle tunes, manages to sound like Aaron Copland and Smetana at the same time. In the slow movement, the dominance of the pentatonic scale and the persistent rhythmic accompaniment suggest, to some, the composer’s interest in American Indian culture; to others, the movement sounds “purely Bohemian” and more than a little homesick. In any case, it is a gentle movement, poignant without being oppressive, flowing along like water in moonlight to a wonderful cello solo at the end. In the scherzo, Dvořák takes as his central theme the call of “some damned bird, red, only with black wings” (a scarlet tanager?). The theme, with its strong, repeated V-I motif, is merry and upbeat on the whole, though with a mysterious minor midsection. The finale is a rondo, which bustles along full of sunshine and energy, with snatches of tunes like “Oh, Susannah,” as well as the echoes of the hymns Dvořák played on the organ in the Spillville church.

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