The String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, nicknamed the American Quartet, is the 12th string quartet composed by Antonín Dvořák. It was written in 1893, during Dvořák’s time in the United States. The quartet is one of the most popular in the chamber music repertoire.
Dvořák composed the quartet in 1893 during a summer vacation from his position as director (1892–1895) of the National Conservatory in New York City. He spent his vacation in the town of Spillville, Iowa, which was home to a Czech immigrant community. Dvořák had come to Spillville through Josef Jan Kovařík who had finished violin studies at the Prague Conservatory and was about to return to Spillville, his home in the United States, when Dvořák offered him a position as secretary, which Josef Jan accepted, so he came to live with the Dvořák family in New York. He told Dvořák about Spillville, where his father Jan Josef was a schoolmaster, which led to Dvořák deciding to spend the summer of 1893 there.
In that environment, and surrounded by beautiful nature, Dvořák felt very much at ease. Writing to a friend he described his state of mind, away from hectic New York: “I have been on vacation since 3 June here in the Czech village of Spillville and I won’t be returning to New York until the latter half of September. The children arrived safely from Europe and we’re all happy together. We like it very much here and, thank God, I am working hard and I’m healthy and in good spirits.” He composed the quartet shortly after the New World Symphony, before that work had been performed.
Dvořák sketched the quartet in three days and completed it in thirteen more days, finishing the score with the comment “Thank God! I am content. It was fast.” It was his second attempt to write a quartet in F major: his first effort, 12 years earlier, produced only one movement. The American Quartet proved a turning point in Dvořák’s chamber music output: for decades he had toiled unsuccessfully to find a balance between his overflowing melodic invention and a clear structure. In the American Quartet it finally came together. Dvořák defended the apparent simplicity of the piece: “When I wrote this quartet in the Czech community of Spillville in 1893, I wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did.”
For his symphony Dvořák gave the subtitle himself: “From the New World”. To the quartet he gave no subtitle himself, but there is the comment “The second composition written in America.”
Dvorak – String Quartet No. 12 in F major