- Historic Sites
Dvořák In America
The great Czech composer arrived on these shores a century ago and wrote some of his most enduring masterpieces here. Perhaps more important, he understood better than any American of the day where our musical destiny lay.
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
While the Te Deum was a far from pedestrian piece of music, it and the overtures struck The Critic with “much the same effect as made-over summer costumes.” From Dvořák, it was not enough: “Both compositions were more than good. They were beyond question the works of a master; but they were not master-works.” To a similarly lukewarm review of the new pieces, the Times added the opinion that “Dr. Dvořák is an extremely bad conductor. His beat is so uncertain that it is impossible to see how any body of players or singers could follow it with confidence.” An attempt by the New York Philharmonic the following spring to introduce another unfamiliar Dvořák work, his cantata The Spectre’s Bride , met the same respectful but cool reception.
Dvořák, meanwhile, settled down to his duties at the National Conservatory. Although the institution enrolled more than six hundred students, his own schedule was a scholar’s dream. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings he taught a two-hour class in composition to just eight advanced students, while his Tuesdays and Thursdays were encumbered only by a two-hour afternoon rehearsal with the conservatory’s orchestra, where Dvořák quickly acquired a reputation as a taskmaster.
The family moved into a house at 327 East Seventeenth Street, only a few minutes’ walk down the street from the conservatory. (A piano promptly appeared in their living room, compliments of the Steinway Company.) Dvořák generally left the conservatory to meet Anna for lunch at a nearby café, where the two children often joined them from school.
With his life thus circumscribed into a tight circle in Manhattan, the fifty-one-year-old composer spent a quiet first year in America. Complaining frequently of poor health, he preferred to pass his evenings at home playing darda , a Czech card game, with a constant companion named Josef Jan Kovařík, a young Czech-American from Iowa whom he had met when Kovařík was studying music in Prague. Serving as Dvořák’s American Baedeker, Kovařík taught with the master at the conservatory and accompanied him on his principal extracurricular activity of viewing the pigeons in Central Park. Dvořák was also an avid steamship and locomotive buff, and the uncomplaining Kovařík often tagged along on jaunts to the docks of Lower Manhattan and the Harlem River railroad bridges.
Dvořák’s contract called for a certain number of concert appearances, and November found him in Boston, where he conducted two performances of his Requiem . He finally completed the score for The American Flag the following January, although it was destined to remain unheard until after he had gone home. At any rate, before the end of the year he began sketching a theme that would bear far more succulent fruit. By the end of January he had worked out the first three move- ments of a major work, which he V inscribed as Symphony No. 8 in E \ Minor. (Since some of Dvořák’s early symphonies were not published in sequence, this is the one that was long known as No. 5 but is now recognized as No. 9, his last.) On May 24, 1893, he was able to write his customary “Thank God!” on the final page of the manuscript, which now bore the subtitle Z noueho sveta —“From the New World.”
Through the complementary processes of teaching and creation, Dvorak had also sorted out some theories about the possibilities of music in the New World. “I am now satisfied that the future of music in this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies,” he told the New York Herald at the time he was completing his symphony. This was his answer to the commonly held view that America, being a nation of nations, didn’t possess the requisite folk culture upon which an indigenous music might be based. “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” said Dvořák, who had racked his pupils’ resources for all the spirituals and plantation songs he could get. While most of his students at the conservatory regarded such sources as beneath notice, Dvořák reported that one promising pupil was taking the hint. After all, he pointed out, even his own most serious works were rooted in the “simple, half forgotten tunes of the Bohemian peasants.”
Thurber didn’t merely endorse her director’s theories; she backed them up with concrete actions. The same article that carried the Dvořák interview also announced her decision to open the National Conservatory to black students. Tuition would be waived for the most gifted.
Dvořák had intended to spend his summer vacation back in Bohemia, but Kovařík came up with a happier inspira- tion: Why not come out to his home town of Spillville, Iowa, and see the real America? Dvořák, who himself came of peasant stock and maintained a rural retreat outside Prague, eagerly accepted. An aunt and a nursemaid shepherded his other four children to New York, and by June 3, 1893, the re- united clan was on its way west via the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Chicago Express.