String Quartet No. 12 'American' : Work information

Antonín (Leopold) Dvorák ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Mela Tenenbaum (Violin), Heidi Stubner (Violin), John Dexter (Viola), Roger Shell (Cello)

This work

Work name
String Quartet No. 12 'American'
Work number
Op. 96
1893-01-01 02:00:00

This recording

Recording date

Track listing

  • Finale: Vivace ma non troppo 5:33 min


Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 in the town of Spillville, a Bohemian settlement in North-East Iowa. It was here he wrote the String Quartet No. 12 nicknamed 'American'. Work on the new Quartet was quick and the first private performance was given in Spillville, Dvorak himself playing first violin.

Although the opening of the Quartet is reminiscent of Smetana's First Quartet, there are a few features that make the work's nickname appropriate: Dvorak's melodies lean towards using the pentatonic scale, used in American folk music, and the scherzo includes notated birdsong heard in the woodlands of Iowa.

The work was given its first public performance in Boston on New Year's Day 1894 by the Kneisel Quartet, and has since become one of Dvorak's most popular chamber works. Listen especially for the joyful exuberance of the finale with its pounding rhythms and simple melodic invention.

The Composers

Antonín (Leopold) Dvorák

Born near Prague, Dvorák studied the violin with his local school master. Then, between 1857 and 1859, he attended the Prague Organ School. He was influenced by the Czech composer Smetana who, from 1866, directed the Opera Orchestra in which Dvorák played the viola. From about 1873, he devoted most of his life to composition. He won the Austrian State Stipendium three times, in 1874, 1876 and 1877. This got the attention of the composer Johannes Brahms , who in 1878 arranged for the publisher Simrock to publish some of Dvorák’s works. Under this arrangement, Dvorák’s music began to be performed throughout Europe. Some of these early works include the Slavonic Dances, the Symphony No. 6 and the Stabat Mater. He received several commissions, particularly in England, where he was very popular and much admired. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University.

In 1891 Dvorák became a Professor of Composition at the Prague Conservatoire, and before leaving for the USA he toured Bohemia playing the new Dumky Trio. From 1892 until 1895 he was the Director of the new National Conservatory in New York, teaching composition. During this period of his life, his compositions show his deep interest in American folk music. These include the famous Symphony No. 9 ('From the New World'), the String Quartet in F, the String Quintet in E flat and the Cello Concerto.

Homesickness took him back to Prague, where he began to write symphonic poems. He received many honours in his own country and resisted invitations by Brahms to move to Vienna where he was only grudgingly accepted. His attempts at dramatic music were eventually rewarded with the success of the opera Rusalka (1901). He died in 1904, shortly after the first performances of his last opera, Armida. The late 19th century brought an increasing awareness of national identity to various ethnic groups in Europe and Dvorák’s musical career was influenced by the spirit of Bohemian nationalism.

Related Composers: Smetana, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Wagner