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Music History

Dvořák in Iowa

September 9, 2022
A sign in Spillville, Iowa shared by the DesMoines Register The DesMoines Register

The "American" Quartet's Inspiration

Antonín Dvořák’s American journey and inspiration.

Finding one’s place in a community far from home can have a powerful effect, and Dvořák happened to find his community, and a distinctly American inspiration, in the unlikely locale of Spillville, Iowa.

Few composers have had as profound an impact on chamber music as that of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. Of the nearly 40 chamber works often inspired by the folk music of his native Bohemia, his Quartet in F major, Op. 96— later nicknamed the “American” Quartet— stands apart as his most famous and beloved.

Dvořák and his family moved to the United States in 1892 when he was appointed director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. Along with the demands of his well-paid salaried position, the composer had the goal of discovering the fundamental sound of “American Music” and incorporating it into his work as he often did with Czech folk idioms. The family's stay in the United States revolved mostly around the New York City, but during the summer of 1893, Dvořák moved his family— including his wife, six children, an aunt, and a household cook— from the bustling city to a remote farming community in Iowa, thanks to some insight from his secretary, an American of Czech heritage and recent graduate of violin studies at the Prague Conservatory, Joseph J. Kovařík.

Along the way, both to and from their idyllic retreat, the family stopped in Chicago for the grandeur of the 1893 World's Fair. The composer also visited the midwestern metropolis midsummer for a 10-day solo trip including a gala concert he conducted for Bohemian Day, August 12th. His time in Chicago was punctuated by a visit from Theodore Thomas, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony, who arranged to have a string quartet come to Dvořák's hotel, the Lakota, to read through the “American” Quartet, which the composer had just completed in Spillville.

Finally, at summer’s end, the Dvořáks returned to New York City along with the completed scores of his Symphony “From the New World” and the newly minted “American” String Quartet. Both would be premiered at Carnegie Hall the following season, ushering in the most productive and lucrative season of the composer's life.

CMS has proudly presented Dvořák's “American” Quartet, Op. 96, in Alice Tully Hall for over 22 years and will welcome this piece back to the stage October 18, 2022, as part of American Visitors.

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Artists seen here: Calidore String Quartet. Video recorded live in the Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Studio on October 15, 2020, directed by Tristan Cook.