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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
There was never any doubt about the work’s stature. “We are inclined to regard it as the best of Dr. Dvořák’s works in this form,” said the Times critic, “which is equivalent to saying that it is a great symphony and must take its place among the finest works in this form produced since the death of Beethoven.” The question of the moment, in view of the composer’s pronouncements of the previous spring, was how “American” it was. The answer, according to the Times , depended on the flexibility of one’s definition. Dvořák had avoided the pitfall of attempting to deploy actual Negro or Indian melodies in his scheme but rather had adapted their essence to his own original constructions. In musical terms this meant a preference for the use of a pentatonic scale common to folk tunes of many cultures- the Negro and the Appalachian as well as the Gallic and his own Czech. Whatever the precise formula, audiences readily identified its vigorous movements with the bustle of New York and its pensive largo with the loneliness of the prairie or the burial scene from “Hiawatha,” which was actually cited as its inspiration.
Two weeks after the New World debut, the two chamber works written in Iowa received their premiere in Boston, on New Year’s Day, 1894. He brought the works to Carnegie Hall’s Chamber Music Room two weeks later for their New York premiere. Both were praised for their simplicity as well as their beauty, and once again critics avidly analyzed their “Americanness.” The Times said, “His themes are redolent of the cotton fields and the river valleys of the South. The inflections and rhythms of Negro times abound in them, and in the finale of the quintet we are brought to realize that Dr. Dvořák has heard some of our music hall ditties, and decided that they are of the people.” In fact, he mined the American idiom so effectively that the largo movement of the New World Symphony has come to be widely regarded as a genuine black spiritual, “Going Home,” that the composer appropriated for his work, rather than what it is—Dvořák’s own composition.
That January saw two more Dvořák essays on American forms—his final words on the subject, as it turned out. A local church choir had introduced him to the music of Stephen Foster, and on January 23 he returned the favor by conducting the conservatory’s black students in his own arrangement of “The Old Folks at Home.” The composer saw to it that the proceeds for the concert were forwarded to a charity for relief work in New York’s slums. He also completed the Suite in A Major for piano, later orchestrated, which is generally regarded as the last work bearing the characteristics of Dvořák’s American period.
His next work, “Ten Biblical Songs,” was composed in the shadow of the recent deaths of Tchaikovsky, Gounod, and his own father, and it bore the stamp of the Old World rather than the New. When Dvořák’s American contract expired in May, he was feeling the irresistible pull of his homeland. “He used to be particularly homesick on steamer days when he read the shipping news in the Herald ” Thurber later recalled. Despite her persuasiveness, the best she could get from him was a compromise: he would return to Bohemia for an extended summer vacation and then come back for one more year in America.
So the Dvořáks left New York and were back in Prague before June. They spent most of the summer at Vysoká, where Dvořák regaled his old neighbors with tales of his adventures in the New World. He wrote only eight short humoresques for piano, one of which was destined nevertheless to become the single work most closely associated in the popular mind with his name (No. 7 in G-flat Major). Undoubtedly his regrets over his commitment increased as the summer’s days began to shorten, but he was true to his word. Immediately after conducting the Prague premiere of the New World on October 13, he was on his way to America again. As if to underscore the transience of this commitment, he was accompanied this time only by Anna and one son, Otakar. He must have felt that the American vein was pretty much mined out for him. Thurber importuned him to write an American opera and suggested “Hiawatha” for his subject. Dvořák was not averse and even made some sketches, but he abandoned the project for lack of an adequate libretto. There was much more of Bohemia than of America in his principal composition that year, though lingering traces of the latter still echoed therein. One of the leading players of the New York Philharmonic whom Dvořák met was the young Irish-American cellist Victor Herbert, who had recently composed a concerto for his instrument.
Perhaps under the stimulus of this contact, Dvořák spent the winter on his own cello concerto, which would prove to be a great masterpiece in that instrument’s literature. It was not Herbert, however, but Leo Stern in London who performed at its premiere.