Antonín Dvořák: String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, July 21, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major could be called his other “American” Quartet, as he began writing it in New York in March 1895, at the end of his three-year stay in the United States (the actual “American” Quartet is No. 12). But after completing just 70 measures of the new piece, he returned to Europe and set the draft aside. He wrote an entirely different quartet (No. 13—begun later, but finished first) before resuming work on No. 14, completing it in December 1895. This is his final string quartet and his last piece of chamber music. In the remaining years before his death, he would write only orchestral music and operas.

In 1892, Dvořák had moved to America to take a job as artistic director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He was selected by the school’s president, the philanthropist Jeannette Thurber, largely because he was a champion of nationalist Czech music—she hoped he would spur an American musical movement in a similar spirit. The “American” Quartet and “New World” Symphony were his major gestures in that direction, but he was always ambivalent, feeling that American music should be in the hands of Americans, drawing from Black and Native American traditions.

Meanwhile he was homesick for Bohemia, and the Panic of 1893 left the National Conservatory’s finances—and his salary—insecure. In February 1895, two months before he left America for good, Dvořák wrote rather bitterly in Harpers:

When I see how much is done in every other field by public-spirited men in America—how schools, universities, libraries, museums, hospitals, and parks spring up out of the ground and are maintained by generous gifts—I can only marvel that so little has been done for music. . . .

Art, of course, must always go a-begging, but why should this country alone, which is so justly famed for the generosity and public spirit of its citizens, close its door to the poor beggar? . . .

Not long ago a young man came to me and showed me his compositions. His talent seemed so promising that I at once offered him a scholarship in our school, but he sorrowfully confessed that he could not afford to become my pupil because he had to earn his living by keeping books in Brooklyn. . . . I urged him to arrange the matter with his employer, but he only received the answer: “If you want to play, you can’t keep books. You will have to drop one or the other.” He dropped his music. . . .

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that art, as such, does not “pay,” to use an American expression—at least, not in the beginning—and that the art that has to pay its own way is apt to become vitiated and cheap.

This was his plea to America, which happily adopted his American-written works, but has been less than universally accepting of his critique. (Though he might be pleased to find more young composers than impoverished bookkeepers living in Brooklyn today.)

America also seems to have had little lasting effect on Dvořák, as he turned his attention to solidly Czech music after returning home. But the String Quartet No. 14 is an exception: a transatlantic work that is neither affirmatively American nor Bohemian. It has qualities reminiscent of the more famous “American” Quartet, but here those qualities are more subtle, more digested.

The first movement begins with a grim Adagio, which gives way to a sunnier Allegro. The Scherzo, marked Molto vivace, comes next, its dance rhythms set over turbulent textures. The slow movement is operatic, resembling at different points either a chorus or an aria. The Finale brims with Dvořákian devices—it’s the last movement of his last quartet, and he makes it a greatest-hits reel of all his accomplishments in the genre.

The Quartet No. 14 premiered at the Prague Conservatory on April 16, 1896. The concert was held on the one-year anniversary of Dvořák’s return home.