- Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves, Bohemia
- Died May 1, 1904, in Prague.
- Composed in 1893
- First CMS performance on November 17, 1985, by violinist Josef Suk and pianist Lee
- Duration: 19 minutes
In 1891 Antonín Dvořák received an offer he couldn’t refuse from Jeanette Thurber, a visionary philanthropist who had recently founded the National Conservatory of Music of America. Her goal was to create a place where all were welcome under a nondiscrimination policy to foster the growth of musical arts at home in the United States—a deliberate effort to keep waves of talented youngsters from going off to Europe to study, live, and work. She also hoped, in an era in which the preoccupation of many European composers was exploring “national” sounds, to discover the answer to the question “What is American music?” Thurber recognized that Dvořák’s distinctive style came from integrating the sonorities of his native Czech folk music with the broader European concert music tradition and invited him to take an appointment as Artistic Director and Professor of Composition for what equates to roughly half a million dollars today. Dvořák, along with his wife and children, set sail and arrived in New York City on September 26, 1892.
In his quest to find the American spirit in music, Dvořák collaborated with Black students at the conservatory, including Henry Thacker Burleigh, who introduced him to the spirituals and plantation songs of enslaved peoples, and with New York Tribune music critic Henry Krehbiel, who provided transcriptions of Indigenous North American melodies. Dvořák asserted that the elements found in these traditions were the sounds that would form the foundation of a uniquely American music, including, as his biographer Klaus Döge recorded, “pentatonism in the melodic line, a flattened leading note, plagal cadences, drone accompaniment, rhythmic ostinato, and strongly syncopated rhythms.” Fast-forward to American music in the 20th century and beyond, and Dvořák was right.
Dvořák’s time in the United States may have been musically fruitful, but it was in many ways personally unfulfilling. He was never at ease in New York City, and his generously compensated position became untenable by 1895, when Thurber found she could not pay his full salary due to economic difficulties. However, there was one place the composer called an “ideal spot” during his tenure in this country: a small town in Iowa called Spillville with a large Czech immigrant population, where he spent the summer of 1893. There he wrote two chamber pieces that would become among his most beloved, the String Quartet in F major and the String Quintet in E-flat major, both known by the nickname “American.” The same year, after returning to New York, Dvořák penned the Sonatina and dedicated it to his children, celebrating its auspicious opus number, 100. Unfolding over four movements, the Sonatina shares the abundance of charming melodies that characterizes the other “American” pieces. In particular, the melancholic second movement, based on a melody Dvořák is said to have sketched on his shirt sleeve during a visit to Minnehaha Falls, Minnesota, gained attention of its own—so much so that legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler occasionally programmed it on his recitals.