During his visit to the USA (1892 - 1895, Dvorak wrote this string quartet. In the year 1981, Jeannette Thurber president of the National Conservatory of Music in America, asked Dvorak if he would create an American style of art music. He drew his inspiration from a variety of places including: spirituals, Native American music, and his love of trains. This is one of the most popular pieces in string quartet repertoire.
String Quartet in four movements:
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Molto vivace
- Finale: vivace ma non troppo
Dvorak believed that American music should include attributes of the folk music. Some of these are pentatonic melodies, rhythmic ostinato, droned harmonies, and heavily syncopated rhythms. We can hear these tools used quite a lot in this work. In the very beginning of the quartet, the viola melody is pentatonic while the rest play a repeated figure. This work sounds like it was heavliy inspired by the idea of the frontier and exploration of it. Dvorak had a great love for trains and included that in the string quartet. The finale is a great example of his use of ostinato to represent the train chugging along on the tracks at high speed.
It is very easy to distinguish Dvorak from other composers of the romantic, especially during his "American" period. As mentioned earlier he uses spirituals and Native American melodies. His 9th Symphony "From the New World" is a clear example of this. The symphony was written before the string quartet. Quite a few other composers were also creating nationalistic music using folk themes (for their native countries). It's interesting that Dvorak, being Czech, was brought overseas to create an "American" style.
Tchaikovsky's first quartet shares some features of Dvorak's "American". Its first movement has a very simplistic melody and lots of rhythmic ostinato. It is a very open sounding piece and it would be easy to mistake this for Dvorak. Tchaikovsky uses a folk melody as the theme for the second movement. The thing that distinguishes the quartets from each other is that Dvorak constantly uses folk themes, while Tchaikovsky uses a variety of thematic that don't necessarily have anything to do with established songs. This is particularly true of the last two movements of his quartet.
I have had the pleasure of playing this work in its entirety as well as the Tchaikovsky. I can see many similarities between the two, but it seems like the Tchaikovsky has a thicker texture than the Dvorak often does. The instruments also play in unison more often than in Dvorak. Actually, the Emerson Quartets recordings of these are on the same CD probably because they are closely related musically.
Dvorak "American" Video: http://youtu.be/DxtAHpYIXdU
Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1 Video: http://youtu.be/oIZIQ5B-f6g
Klaus Döge. "Dvořák, Antonín." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 19, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/51222 .
Lionel B. Davis and Kenneth Carley. "When Minnehaha Falls Inspired Dvorak." Minnesota History, Vol 41, No. 3. (Minnesota Historical Society Press, Fall, 1968), pp. 128-136. Accessed April 19, 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20177983.