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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
Two days later they crossed the Mississippi and arrived at what Dvořák called “our summer Vysoká in the State of Iowa.” It was not so far-fetched a metaphor, for Spillville and such nearby northeastern Iowa towns as Calmar and Protivin were nearly as Czech as Dvořák’s own village. They were met by Kovařík’s father, Jan Josef, who was the town schoolmaster and choir director, and shown to the four-room flat over a square brick Store on Main Street, rented for them from a local German.
Spillville agreed with Dvořák; his health improved, and he quickly settled into a happy routine. Rising at four, he would walk to the banks of the Turkey River, then return for an hour or two of work. By seven o’clock he was in Father Tomáš Bílý’s St. Wenceslas Church, where he generally played the organ for morning mass, occasionally to accompany his wife, an accomplished singer. After more working and more walking, he liked to round out the day in conversation with some of the settlers. Despite all the reminders of his homeland, he noted an essential difference. “A farmer’s nearest neighbor is often four miles off,” he wrote home. “Especially in the prairies (I call them the Sahara) there are only endless acres of field and meadow and that is all you see.… And so it is very ‘wild’ here and sometimes very sad—sad to despair.” He found compensation in the casual manners of American democracy, where the millionaire and the porter addressed each other as “Mister,” as he later remarked to a student, “with no difference except the millions!”
It was a productive vacation. Dvořák first touched up the orchestrations of the New World Symphony, and by the end of June he had completed a new work, the String Quartet in F Major (the American ), which had received its first run-through by a pickup quartet comprising Dvořák and members of the Kovařík family. He composed another chamber work in July, the String Quintet in E-flat. Its second movement contained echoes of a group of Algonquin Indians who had stopped at Spillville to sell herbal medicines and performed some of their native dances practically at the Dvořáks’ doorstep.
Soon enough the outside world intruded on the composer’s pastoral interlude. Dvořák had been invited to appear at the World’s Columbian Exposition, so on August 7 he, Anna, and two daughters arrived in Chicago. August 12 had been designated Czech Day at the fair, and in an all-Czech concert in Festival Hall, reputedly attended by thirty thousand, Dvořák conducted his G Major Symphony and three Slavonic Dances. It was a good month for Czech music in Chicago; a week later Smetana’s The Bartered Bride received its American premiere at the Haymarket Theater.
Dvořák returned to Spillville, but was off again by the first week in September on a solo excursion that took him to Omaha and St. Paul, calling on Czech acquaintances and correspondents. At the Minnehaha Falls near the latter city, he was visited by a melodic inspiration that, for want of a notebook, he jotted down on his cuff. By then it was time to pack up the family and return to New York for his second term at the conservatory.
This time the entire family remained in New York, and Kovařík was convinced that for Dvořák it was “the happiest year of his life.” Dvořák composed a violin and piano sonata for Otilie and Antonin, keeping it simple for them and designating it, a couple of numbers out of sequence, as his Opus 100. For its larghetto he cribbed from the cuff he had worn at Minnehaha Falls, and the movement was later issued separately by Dvořák’s publisher as an “Indian Canzonetta.”
All else that fall was overshadowed by preparations for the premiere of the New World Symphony. It was to be given “from the manuscript” by the New York Philharmonic, and the rehearsals brought Dvořák into a closer relationship with Anton Seidl, the orchestra’s German conductor. “He was almost the only man with whom I could converse about music,” Dvořák recalled later. Seidl even managed to entice the composer out of the house for some performances at the Metropolitan Opera and some extramusical lagers at Fleischmann’s German café on Broadway.
He mined the American idiom so effectively that the largo theme for the New World Symphony has been taken for an actual spiritual.
Although Seidl gave the New World its first performance, on Friday afternoon, December 15, 1893, the Dvořáks waited, along with society and the critics, for the Saturday-evening concert. It was as complete a triumph as Dvorak could have wished. The audience would not wait for the end but burst into applause after the second movement. “Everyone present turned to look in the direction in which the conductor, Anton Seidl, was looking,” said the critic from the Herald . “At last a sturdily built man of medium height, straight as a fir tree from the forest, whose music he so splendidly interprets, was discovered by the audience. From all over the hall there are cries of: ‘Dvořák! Dvořák!’” It was enough for once to stir the composer’s normal equanimity; he wrote to his publisher that “it made me think of Mascagni in Vienna.” Jeannette Thurber had every reason to be pleased; her investment had paid a handsome dividend.