Dvorák wrote his String Quartet opus 96 in just three days while on holiday in Spillville, a little colony of Bohemian emigrants in Iowa. He stayed there in the pleasant company of farmers, friendly priests and hearty housewives, among whom he could speak his native language. It has been suggested that this may explain the relative simplicity of the work. About his stay in Spillville Dvorák wrote: ‘As far as my new Symphony, the F-major String Quartet and the Piano Quintet (written here in Spillville) are concerned – I would never have written them in this way if I had not seen America’.
The themes of the four movements seem to originate from Bohemian or American folk tunes, in view of the fact that they are based on the pentatonic scale F-G-A-C-D. The second movement suggests a melancholic negro spiritual, as if the Bohemian Dvorák is writing to get his own homesickness out of his mind. The sparkling third movement (Scherzo) imitates the rhapsodic warbling of an American bird, the Scarlet Tanager. The quartet closes with a rondo in which echoes are heard of the church music of ‘Bohemian’ Spillville, which Dvorák and his wife regularly took part in. And do we also hear a steam train speeding along in the distance?