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Dvořák and America

By Richard Carter | HUMANITIES, May/June 2000 | Volume 21, Number 3

In September 1892 the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák came to America with his wife, their eldest son, and daughter. A simple man who for decades had lived modestly, Dvořák had been recognized as a major composer only a few years before. The promise of financial security and the challenge of creating a national school of music prompted him to accept Jeanette Thurber's offer of the directorship of her recently founded National Conservatory of Music in New York.

Dvořák was to spend three unhappy and homesick years in the United States. These years are the subject of a new hour-length film by Lucille Carra and Brian Cotnoir called Dvořák and America. The film had its European premiere late last year. It will be seen on public television stations here in July.

Carra describes Dvořák as "a stranger in a strange land." It was in this country, Carra says, that Dvořák discovered that the fundamental American folk music idiom was African. And at the same time Dvořák was initially unaware of the extensive racism that stood in the path of many black musicians. The film mines a rich field of archival photographs and recordings of Dvořák's music never heard outside the Czech Republic, including rare wax cylinder recordings and reconstructions of the black musical In Dahomey by Will Marion Cook, an African American composer Dvořák championed. Tracing Dvořák's life in America, the film is as much about America in the 1890s as it is about the composer.

Born in 1841 near Prague, Dvořák came from a poor family living under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bubbling under the surface was a strong and growing nationalist sentiment. The eldest of nine children, Dvořák was apprenticed to his father in the butcher trade. When his musical talent was discovered, an uncle provided the means for the boy to enter the Prague Organ School. As a young musician, Dvořák earned his keep as a viola player in the Prague Provisional Theater Orchestra. His career as a composer languished until his Slavonic Dances came to the attention of Johannes Brahms. Brahms twisted the arm of his Berlin publisher Simrock to issue the first set of the dances. They were an immediate hit, and a second set followed with equal success.

By the time he arrived in America his fame had preceded him. He had recently been made an honorary doctor of music at Cambridge University, and his eight symphonies, chamber music, operas, and instrumental compositions revealed an artist whose soul attempted to express the land, the songs, and the people of his homeland together with an almost pantheistic embrace of nature. Like many others he saw the United States as a land of promise and expected to find the same open-hearted attitudes among the American people.

As the film shows, Dvořák found a nation that looked to Europe for its culture and turned a deaf ear to black music and musicians. Moreover, living in the teeming New York of the 1890s, the composer became deeply homesick. Temporary respite came in the form of an invitation from a small Czech immigrant community that had settled in Spillville, Iowa.

The first part of the film traces the two summers Dvořák and his family spent in Spillville. Miles from nowhere, Spillville, as the film depicts, in many ways resembled the Bohemia Dvořák had left behind. There Dvořák felt temporarily at home, playing the organ in the settlers' small church and taking delight with people in such joyous events as the birth of a farmer's piglets. It was in Spillville that the composer met members of the Kickapoo Indian tribe and heard their music. It was also there that he wrote two of his greatest chamber works, the op. 96 string quartet, called the American, and the op. 97 string quintet. The quartet was written in the space of a few days, from June 8 to 23, 1893. Spillville had unleashed his pent up creativity. Dvořák wrote on the last page of the quartet: "Thanks be to God. I am content."

The second part of the film travels with Dvořák to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There he saw Dahomey dancers and met Will Marion Cook. Later Cook turned to writing musical comedy after the doors of concertizing were slammed shut in his face. Meeting, studying, and knowing Dvořák would remain an influence throughout Cook's life.

Harry T. Burleigh is another black composer who studied with Dvořák. Like Cook, he, too, became a leading figure in twentieth-century American music. Introduced through the voice of his great-grandson, the story is told of how Burleigh delighted Dvořák with the plantation songs Burleigh learned from his grandfather, a former slave, as the composer's children and uncaged birds rushed about the room. It was at this time that Dvořák was writing his E minor symphony, From the New World, and publishing his groundbreaking series of articles "On the Value of Negro Music."

The film concludes with the Carnegie Hall premiere of the New World symphony in December 1893. This triumph is contrasted with Dvořák conducting his students and an all-black choir at Madison Square Garden in Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home."

"I did not come to America to interpret Beethoven or Wagner," Dvořák once said. "I came to America to discover what young Americans had in them and help them express it."