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Dvořák in America

Finding a New Voice

By Scott Ethier | HUMANITIES, November/December 2003 | Volume 24, Number 6

One hundred years after Antonín Dvořák’s death, students are discovering the story of the composer who changed classical music in America. With a new book and multimedia DVD-ROM, they will learn about Dvořák and how he was influenced by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, African American spirituals, and other aspects of American culture he encountered during a trip to the United States.

“I’d like orchestras to think more like museums do--in terms of a broader intellectual and artistic and cultural purpose--rather than just cranking out concerts,” says Joseph Horowitz, author of Dvořák in America, and director of historical projects for the American Symphony Orchestra League. Classical music in America, he says, “suffers terribly from its insularity.”

In collaboration with Robert Winter, a multimedia designer and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Horowitz will bring the NEH-supported DVD, From the New World: A Celebrated Composer in America, into classrooms for field-testing this winter and early next year.

The debut comes in January when high school and middle school students from history and social studies classes will come together to hear the New Jersey Symphony play From the New World at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Dvořák’s trip to America and the genesis of his symphony have riveted Horowitz and Winter for more than a decade. The story begins with philanthropist Jeanette Thurber, who convinced the composer to come to America in 1892 to act as the head of the National Conservatory in New York City. Thurber had founded the National Conservatory several years earlier with the idea that music students in the United States would no longer need to go overseas for their musical training. She saw in Dvořák an unusual composer who understood how to create a music of national character: in his compositions, he had taken inspiration from Slavic folk traditions in Moravia, Slovakia, Poland, and Russia, combining their harmonic modes with new rhythms and melodies. It was in this spirit that he composed his renowned Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances.

While writers such as Whitman, Thoreau, and Melville had crafted a distinctive American voice in literature, American musical culture centered on Europe. American composers were trained in Europe and wrote music that was virtually indistinguishable from their European models. Thurber felt it was time tocreate an entirely American music and charged Dvořák with training composers to carry out her vision.

The New York press was filled with articles about his arrival. Americans were impressed that Dvořák, the son of a Bohemian butcher, had worked his way up--with a little assistance from Johannes Brahms--to become one of Europe’s most respected composers. Journalist Henry Edward Krehbiel, who would become one of Dvořák’s most loyal supporters in the press, wrote in Century magazine that Dvořák's life was “a story of manifest destiny, of signal triumph over obstacle and discouraging environment. To rehearse it stimulates hope, reanimates ambition, and helps keep alive popular belief in the reality of that precious attribute called genius.”

Just as America was taken by Dvořák, Dvořák was equally fascinated by America. In particular, he was captivated by the music and culture of African Americans and American Indians. “I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants,” he writes in Music in America. “I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans.”

One of Dvořák’s students at the National Conservatory was the young African American singer and composer Harry Burleigh. Burleigh sang for Dvořák many of the spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his grandfather.

Dvořák’s interest in American Indian culture began in Europe, when he read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, in Czech translation. During his first year in New York he accompanied Jeanette Thurber to a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Dvořák was fascinated by Buffalo Bill Cody, the sharpshooter Annie Oakley, and the Indians in war bonnets who reenacted Custer’s Last Stand and battles between settlers and Native Americans.

The music that poured out of Dvořák during the next couple of years reflected the influence of America and American music: the Suite in A Major (“American”), op. 98; the String Quartet in F Major, (“American”) op. 96; Humoresques, op. 101 for piano, which was based on the cakewalk--a precursor to ragtime--and his most well-known composition, From the New World.

From the New World is representative of an important change in Dvořák music. It was one of Dvořák’s first largescale works that tries to show what an American national music could be. While it never quotes African American melodies directly, the symphony overflows with themes influenced by Dvořák’s contact with Burleigh and African American song. The first movement features a closing theme similar to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and the second movement contains the signature English horn melody reminiscent of the spiritual “Deep River.”

In addition to being the first piece of European concert music to incorporate distinctly American ideas, the symphony signals a change in emphasis in Dvořák’s work. Composers in nineteenth-century Europe tended to fall into one of two camps: those who composed “absolute music” and those who composed “program music.”

Composers of absolute music wrote music that was intended to be appreciated for its beauty. They wrote symphonies, sonatas, and concertos, and saw themselves as the heirs to Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart. By contrast, composers of program music wished to tell a story or relate some extra-musical idea in their work. The flow of the music roughly mirrors the progression of the composer’s narrative.

Dvořák, like many composers of the late nineteenth century, drew freely from both camps. But by the time he made his trip to America, he had established a reputation as a fine symphonist with works such as his Symphony No. 6 in D Major, op. 60. According to Horowitz, From the New World was the last symphony that Dvořák wrote, even though he lived for more than another decade after its premiere: after it, Dvořák concentrated on writing tone poems such as The Golden Spinning Wheel and The Water Goblin.

From the New World is the work of an artist in the midst of transition--a shift from his earlier days as a composer of absolute music, to his later years as a composer of program music. The symphony sits squarely between the absolute and programmatic approaches and draws from both of them. While in many ways it is a symphony in the tradition of Mozart or Beethoven, it is programmatic in that it depicts the events of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.

The symphony’s second movement is a portrait of the funeral of Minnehaha, the wife of Hiawatha. The third movement is a scherzo--a traditional movement of the classic symphony set in a diabolically quick triple meter--that depicts the furious dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis, Hiawatha’s enemy, at Hiawatha’s wedding. The final movement brings back themes from the previous three movements and begins with a bold, angry theme in which Dvořák depicts the rage of Hiawatha over Pau-Puk-Keewis’s mischief.

When the symphony premiered on December 16, 1893 at Carnegie Hall with Anton Seidl and the New York Philharmonic, audiences and critics received the work warmly. When the work was premiered in Boston two weeks later, however, the reception could not have been more different. The critics and composers of the Boston establishment were in an uproar.

“Such Negro melodies as I have heard I should be sorry to see become the basis of an American school of composition,” composer George Chadwick wrote in the Boston Herald.

Amy Beach, another Boston composer, applauded the attempt to create a national music, but felt that African American melodies were not “fully typical” of the country. “The African population of the United States is far too small for its songs to be considered ‘American,’” she wrote.

“I still cannot believe the disparity between the response in New York and in Boston was as great as it was,” says Horowitz. “In Boston, one article and review after another speaks the language of social Darwinism--that there are certain races that are barbaric and there are other races that are supreme, and Dvořák himself is somewhat barbaric coming from Bohemia and with his peasant background.”

In looking to African American and American Indian material to create an American music, says Horowitz, Dvořák posed the questions “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Who ought to be considered an American?”

Horowitz says that in the 1890s, American identity was in conflict. “Are black people Americans? Some people said yes, some people said no. Are red people Americans? Some people said yes, some people said no. The Dvořák story was like a litmus test.”

Winter was drawn to the idea of creating the DVD because of his passion for history. “One of the reasons students are so disinterested in history is because it is silent,” he says. “It consists entirely of some expert telling them about an event that they were not present at and doesn’t act like the rest of their life which is full of noise and action and mo vement. So the notion most kids have is that history is a collection of facts made after an event and presented for us to memorize.”

Winter sees the DVD From the New World: A Celebrated Composer in America, which he is creating in collaboration with Peter Bogdanoff, as a new way of experiencing and studying history. A student who is reading about Harry Burleigh, for instance, can click on a link that will allow that student to hear Harry Burleigh singing, giving a much more vivid sense of his music than can be afforded through text or images. From the New World can be used in a middle or high school classroom as a way to launch the study of history beyond music, from the changing face of New York City to the African American experience in the nineteenth century.

The audience for the DVD goes beyond the classroom. From the New World includes thousands of primary sources such as letters, newspaper articles, images, and recordings that will be of interest to symphony audiences, college students, scholars, and other curious minds.

In the century since it premiered, the symphony has become an important part of the orchestral repertoire. But the ideas Dvořák and Thurber had about the direction of American music did not entirely catch on.

Dvořák of course predicted something that never happened--that American classical music would have its own canon just like classical music in Germany or France,” says Horowitz. “Americans would have their own symphonies and operas and sonatas and concertos that would ground their entire musical high culture. . . . In the 1890s nobody had a clue that that wouldn’t happen.”

Instead, America made its statement in the realm of popular culture, an idea that never occurred to Dvořák. Winter points out that had Dvořák stayed just five years longer, his contact with popular culture would have been unavoidable. By 1899, Scott Joplin and a host of ragtime composers had created the music that was most identifiably American. By the 1920s, when Dvořák’s students should have been at an age that they were producing their most mature work, it was Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin who were creating the definitive music of America in the form of jazz and popular song.

Scott Ethier is a composer and freelance writer in New York City.

The multimedia DVD project From the New World: A Celebrated Composer in America has received $180,000 in NEH support. The DVD will be available in December and field-testing will take place through January 2004.