About this Piece
Many composers of the 18th and 19th centuries traveled widely, seeking fame and fortune outside their native lands. Few, however, ventured across the Atlantic as Antonín Dvořák did, in 1892, for a three-year stay in New York as the director of that city’s National Conservatory.
Dvořák, a dyed-in-the-wool Czech who had long since become a thoroughly Bohemian composer — that is, he had turned to his country’s folk music for inspiration and imbued his works with its spirit — warmed to his role as a visiting celebrity, and loudly championed America’s native music — African-American and Native American melodies.
The “New World” Symphony (No. 9) is the best-known example of Dvořák’s warmhearted response to the music that he considered our folk heritage, but his “American” works also include this Sonatina. In all of these, we find music by a genial visitor who, inevitably, was seeing America through Czech-colored glasses. The Sonatina, a piece he dedicated to his six children “to commemorate the completion of my 100th work,” and which, theoretically, he meant to be within the technical reach of young people, uses a melody he had heard in Spillville, “a completely Czech place in the state of Iowa, 1300 miles from New York...”
In the first movement, Dvořák does indeed imbue the music with a kind of Stephen Foster-like spirit that strikes close to his concept of our folklore. The Larghetto second movement is even more strikingly American in its idealization of Native American music, though Dvořák’s Czech nature is hardly ever completely obscured. The Scherzo third movement dances gaily and energetically, and the Finale cavorts with vigor and sings tenderly. — Orrin Howard