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string quartet No. 13 

opus number
Burghauser catalogue number
completed 9. 12. 1895 
premiere - date and place
9 October 1896, Prague
premiere - performer (s)
Czech Quartet (Karel Hoffmann, Josef Suk, Oskar Nedbal, Hanus Wihan) 
main key
G major 
parts / movements
1. Allegro moderato
2. Adagio ma non troppo
3. Molto vivace
4. Andante sostenuto. Allegro con fuoco 
approx. 38 min. 

composition history

The String Quartet in G major was the first work to be written entirely in his native country once Dvorak had returned home from the United States, and thus heralds the final stage of the composer’s career. Together with the Quartet in A flat major, completed almost a month later, it is also his last composition in the field of absolute music. The quartet was not written immediately after his return in May 1895, but in the autumn of that year. What was, for Dvorak, an unusually long break from his compositional work – four months – was probably necessary after his demanding two-and-a-half years’ residency in the United States. The composer moved with his family from Prague to his summer house in Vysoka where, surrounded by nature, he was granted the respite that he needed. In a letter to his friend Alois Gobl, he writes: “I am basking in God’s nature and I am contentedly idle, I am not doing anything, which will probably surprise you, but it’s true, it really is, I’m just lazing around and I haven’t touched my pen.” During this period of apparent inactivity, however, he was mulling over the conception of two new works, the String Quartets in G major and A flat major. Dvorak then wrote the score for the Quartet in G major as if in one fell swoop, between 11 November and 9 December 1895.

general characteristics

The String Quartet in G major (together with the Quartet in A flat major from the same period) is not only one of Dvorak’s most mature chamber works, but also one of the leading examples of absolute music in Europe at that time. This work demonstrates supreme technical sovereignty and a masterful grasp of all the expressional devices at his disposal. In terms of form, Dvorak based his work on the traditional cyclical structure, yet he strives for unique, highly differentiated treatment, while maintaining cohesion throughout. The quartet is unusually melodic, the result of Dvorak’s constant efforts to introduce new themes and, in particular, his skilful elaboration of exposed thematic material via harmonic changes, its distribution into individual motivic elements, the oscillation between major and minor keys etc. Through his deliberate use of duplets, triplets, quadruplets and quintuplets, Dvorak masks the regular metric division of the music, effecting an extraordinary rhythmical palette. As a foretaste of the “impressionism” later typical of his Erbenesque symphonic poems and his last three operas, here – for the first time in his chamber oeuvre – Dvorak places strong emphasis on the impact of its overall sound. The tone colour of the instrumentation, which the composer achieves using only four string instruments, is astounding (certain passages in the second movement almost give the impression of a full orchestra). The mood of the work is extremely variable, moving from a profoundly meditative, almost agonising tone in the slow movement, to the wild and unruly rhythms of the scherzo movement. The tenor in general is joyful, in a reflection of the composer’s spiritual disposition at the time.

formal characteristics

The first movement in sonata form works largely with two main themes which Dvorak breaks up into more succinct motivic elements during the course of the movement; these he also treats independently later on. The development section in this movement is regarded as one of the greatest examples of Dvorak’s compositional mastery. The complex evolution, mutual combination and transformation of individual motifs amid a daring harmonic progression (B flat major – F sharp major – E minor – B minor – G minor – A flat major – E major – G major) are carried off with absolute spontaneity. The second movement in slow tempo alternates two tracts of music, one minor, the other major. Essentially, however, the thematic material is the same for both, which lends the movement its compact texture. The third movement signifies the close of Dvorak’s “American” period. In the essential character of the movement, in its rhythmical treatment, and in the pentatonic nuances of the second subject, we detect traces of the scherzo from the composer’s New World Symphony. The movement is written in traditional three-part form with a contrasting trio. The final movement is considerably loose in form but, in outline, follows the rondo pattern. Again we have various mood changes, as suggested in the first few bars, whose initial restless atmosphere surprisingly gives way to a bright, vivacious melody. As in many of his other works, here, too, Dvorak cites themes from previous movements.