Scarlet Fever

February 16, 2012

During a teaching stint in the United States, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) took a vacation in Spillville, Iowa in the summer of 1893. There he wrote his String Quartet No. 12, op. 96 in F major, what was to become known as the “American” quartet. Not only has the quartet become one of the most celebrated in the chamber music repertoire, but it also contains one of the more well-known soundings of an animal in classical music history. During his sojourn, or so the story goes, Dvořák became all too familiar with the insistent song of the scarlet tanager, a sound that apparently annoyed him so much that he couldn’t help but set it to notation:

That the song ended up in the third movement of the quartet in question is testament to its motivic potency, and perhaps betrays a mind that wanted to be rid of it. Whatever the motivation, those unmistakable strains from the first violin provide what are for me some of the most arresting moments in the piece.

The following is a clip of the tanager in song. The melody that so struck Dvořák can be heard at the 13 second mark:

The violin incarnation can be heard here, at the 47 second mark:

Clearly the song differs from the version in human performance. This makes me wonder: Is this how Dvořák heard it, or was he simply trying to approximate it as best he could? However we try to mimic a bird’s speech, it will always be subpar to the real thing. Some composers have, of course, accomplished similar feats with human speech (Steve Reich’s Different Trains being a quintessential example), and yet in the case of birdsong we are unsure of the meaning behind that which we are sampling. The more I listen to Dvořák, I tend to think that I understand less of the bird and more of the composer, his music, and the musicians playing it. The song has become just another pretty melody, and there it remains, locked on the page until it is unleashed through the art of interpretation. -Tyran

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