Antonín Dvorák's 1892-95 sojourn in the United States was marked quantitatively by residence in New York, where he had been recruited by Jeannette Thurber to be the artistic director and professor of composition at the newly formed National Conservatory of Music. But qualitatively, the summer of 1893, which he spent in Spillville, Iowa, must be reckoned the highlight; he later recalled, "Spillville is an ideal place; I would like to spend the rest of my days there." The homesick Dvorák went to the Midwestern hamlet to connect with its Bohemian community, but while there he had an experience unique to America: The Kickapoo Medicine Show, a traveling Native American blend of entertainments and wares, came to Spillville for two weeks. Dvorák's sharp ears were fascinated, and the rhythmic profile of the Quintet owes much to the experience. Its melodic shape, however, is more akin to the African-American materials Dvorák had championed as a result of his relationship with Harry Thacker Burleigh at the National Conservatory. Less well-known than the "American" string quartet, the Quintet is an equally charming souvenir of his days in the Iowa countryside.
Dvorák's stated goal in this piece was "to write something really melodious and simple" - and certainly few listeners would argue with his success, beginning with the opening viola melody. Dvorák himself was a viola player, a fact that is perhaps responsible for the effective use he makes throughout the piece of the darker, warmer timbre the ensemble takes on as a result of the second viola.
- Musicologist Susan Key specializes in American music. She is currently a special projects consultant for the San Francisco Symphony and a member of the Los Angeles Board of Library Commissioners.