Sunday, May 23, 2010

Dvorak's "American"

The Emerson String Quartet played its final concert on Wednesday night in a chamber series devoted to late 19th century Czech music. Focusing in particular on the work of Antonin Dvorak, the Emerson thrilled the audience with its renditions of two of the works most closely associated with Dvorak's extended visit to the United States between 1892 and 1895 - the "American" Viola Quintet and the "American" String Quartet.

This was my first hearing of the Quintet, so I can't say much about it, but I have been an avid listener of the "American" Quartet since I first heard the Emerson play it outdoors in a Vermont meadow during the summer of 1977. But what exactly can a non-musician say, however enthusiastic his appreciation, about a work that is so complex and so hard to capture in words? Not much, really, but I'm going to try anyway.

Right from the beginning of the first movement as the violins trill in the background and the viola sings out this strong, spring-like opening theme, which is then echoed by the cello, you get this feeling of newness, of being on the brink of something bright and beautiful and unparalleled. I don't really know, but I think the America of the 1890s might have struck Dvorak this way and that in the process of paying tribute to musical themes emanating especially from Native and African American traditions, he was trying to capture something of the anticipatory excitement that some Americans, mostly white ones, felt at that time. That's a lot perhaps to read into a musical work, but there is no question that Dvorak came to America to teach people about the power of classical music, especially when it incorporates native folk themes, as he had done in his earlier Czech-influenced work, and witness American music first-hand, with the intent of using some of what he learned to push his own compositions in a somewhat different direction.

The "American" quartet may be the greatest result of this synthesis, though many people who like symphonic music might point to the "New World" Symphony. But it is in the "American," it seems to me, where Dvorak experiments most successfully with strains from Negro spirituals, especially in the slow moving and lugubrious second movement, and with themes from Native American dances in the first and third movements. More generally, I find the entire work enthralling. The alternating rhythms, the beautiful melodies, the insistent resonance of the dominating viola, all make for a chamber work that is one of the most delightful in the entire repertoire. And with the Emerson playing it so brilliantly in Alice Tully Hall as we witnessed it all from the front row, just a few feet from these marvelous musicians, the whole experience became a kind of perfect fantasy of what a musical listening experience should be.

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