American music, then and now

PCMS presents the Brentano Quartet’s Dvořák and the American Identity

3 minute read
The quartet members, grouped together in dark clothes, smiling and holding their instruments, against a blue background.

At their annual recital for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the Brentano Quartet highlighted one of the most consequential American composers of all time. His name: Antonin Dvořák.

You read that correctly. Of course, Dvořák was born in the country now known as the Czech Republic and his prolific output often incorporated the indigenous musical traditions of that culture; but he also spent a momentous four years, from 1892 to 1896, as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York, and during that time, he established and refined the musical identity of the United States.

Much as he did for his homeland, Dvořák wove the American idiom into his compositions from this period, taking a particular interest in the spiritual tradition and the contemporary popular sound. His Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, subtitled “From a New World,” stands as the most enduring example, a melding of the Romantic style he carried forward from Brahms and Schubert and the panoply of new styles he encountered while in New York. But it also spilled into his chamber music, offering a roadmap for subsequent American artists to follow.

Elegance, edge, and humor

The Brentano musicians showcased this in a smartly curated program. Surprisingly, they played only the Lento movement of his String Quartet in F Major, sometimes called “The American,” which Dvořák wrote while vacationing in a Czech community in Iowa. The majority of the concert’s first half was given over to the String Quartet in A-flat Major, which has a more traditionally European structure and sound, at least in its first two movements.

The purpose of this became clear thanks to the elegant playing of the members: violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee. In the progression of this composition—written in New York in 1895, but not published until Dvořák’s return to Europe the following year—we hear the influence of old masters melting away into something contemporary and fresh. For the first time ever, I heard also the rhythms of Irish folk music in the Allegro non tanto, alongside the expected spiritual melodies, a nod to another immigrant population.

In the second half, the quartet essentially constructed its own piece from excerpts and short works by other American composers, played largely without pause. I appreciated the humor they brought to the Prelude of Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 1, From the Salvation Army, which can sometimes sound overly quaint. They also found an atonal edge within George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, which reflects the neo-Romantic style popular at the Curtis Institute of Music when the composer wrote it as part of his String Quartet No. 1 in 1946. (Walker revised the work in 1990 as a standalone piece.)

A new way of thinking

On opposite ends of the spectrum, “The Quiet One,” from William Grant Still’s Lyric quartet, and Robert Pete Williams’s bluesy tune I’ve Grown So Ugly, orchestrated by Steven Mackey, showed the vast expanse available within contemporary chamber music. The Brentano Quartet brought elegance to the former and abandon to the latter.

If any area found them slightly lacking, it was the spiritual arrangements that served as referents: Deep River, Go Down Moses, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. These sounded lachrymose, overlaid with heavy vibrato. But in glimpses, you heard the same potential as Dvořák for a new way of thinking about American music. And in what followed, you heard his legacy.

What, When, Where

Dvořák and the American Identity. Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello; and Serena Canin and Mark Steinberg, violin. Brentano String Quartet. $25. March 1, 2023, at the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 569-8080 or


Covid-19 policies, such as masking and vaccination requirements, vary by PCMS venue.

All PCMS venues are ADA compliant and provide wheelchair seating options. For specific questions, email [email protected].

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation