About this Piece
The New York socialite Mrs. Jeannette Thurber was a woman of determination and means. When she failed, in 1889, to establish an English-language opera company to compete with the established Metropolitan Opera, she embarked on a new venture (1891): the National Conservatory of Music, which she hoped would rival with Europe’s establishments of higher musical education. What better way to attract attention – and pupils – than to choose as its director a European of great artistic renown, with administrative credentials a secondary consideration.
She narrowed her list of candidates to two: the young Sibelius and the older Dvořák. The latter emerged as the man for the job: not only did he respond (Sibelius seemingly did not, if indeed he was ever approached) but accepted, after some hesitancy about leaving his teaching job at the Prague Conservatory. Mrs. Thurber had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: exceedingly generous remuneration, duties that were hardly onerous, and four months paid vacation per year.
Dvořák arrived in New York in June of 1893, with his wife, their six children, and a maid. On hand as well was a Czech-speaking American, Josef Jan Kovarík, who would serve as interpreter and guide for the duration of the composer’s American stay.
In reading through Dvořák’s correspondence and the comments of his friends during the three years he spent in America, we get the impression that the composer was most happy there in the company of his Czech countrymen. And it was thoughts of the old country, more than direct experiences of the New World, that fueled his creative fires. (Which is not to say that he didn’t pick up some useful “native” ideas in traveling the United States.) His minimal duties at the Conservatory (which required the services of a translator – Kovarík – in class) gave him ample time to compose. The music he started or wrote in its entirety during his stint as titular director of the Conservatory includes some of his most intensely, insistently Czech music: the last and most imposing of his string string quartets, Opp. 96, 105, 106; the String Quintet, Op. 97; the E-minor Symphony (“From the New World”); the Te Deum; and the Cello Concerto.
A lasting and productive experience of the American stay was, in fact, Czech – that is, his visit in the summer of 1893 to the Bohemian colony of Spillville, Iowa, where Kovarík had relatives. It was there that he wrote much of his “New World” Symphony and the entirety of the present quartet, begun three days after his arrival and completed in a mere two weeks, along with the Op. 97 Quintet. The F-major Quartet “reflects,” in the words of Dvořák scholar Jaroslav Holeček, “the happy, restful moments and the magic of the beautiful countryside that the composer would walk every day of his stay there, usually beginning shortly after sunrise.”
Coincidentally and perhaps ironically, Ives’ teacher Horatio Parker taught at the National Academy for a year during Dvořák’s tenure. The latter was in fact on a jury that awarded Parker a prize for one of his choral compositions. It might be further noted that Ives knew Dvořák’s music, if not the man, and seemed to have ill-disguised contempt for it – chiefly because as the work of a “famous foreigner” it was so warmly received by American audiences.