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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
Young American composers were still very much on Dvořák’s mind when he wrote the valedictory article “Music in America” for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in February of 1895. His principal focus was not on an American school of music but on the more elementary problem of American music schools. While still favorably impressed with American enthusiasm and “push,” Dvořák regretted the fact that they were not applied to music and the arts as assiduously as they were to more material ends. Describing how a promising young American composer was forced to turn down a conservatory scholarship in favor of a bookkeeping job in Brooklyn, Dvořák contrasted this with his own experience, when a stipend from the Austrian government had enabled him to pursue his studies and work until “at the end of the time I was able to stand on my own feet.” But the article finished on an optimistic note: Dvořák dismissed arguments that Americans weren’t interested in sood music and reiterated his belief that Negro forms possessed all the prerequisites for a distinctive national style. “I must give full expression to my firm conviction,” he said by way of a coda, “and to the hope that just as this nation has already surpassed so many others in marvellous inventions and feats of engineering and commerce, and has made an honorable place for itself in literature in one short century, so it must assert itself in the other arts, and especially in the art of music.”
It was Dvořák’s last word on the subject. Despite Thurber’s entreaties he embarked on April 16 for Europe on the Saale , the same ship that had first carried him to America. He spoke to his sponsor of the possibility of a return engagement, but they both must have realized that the separation would be permanent. Inevitably rumors made the rounds among disappointed American music circles that he had had a falling out with his benefactor, or that he left embittered over the reception of his ideas about Negro music.
The truth was far more likely the prosaic motive of homesickness. Dvorak was, after all, a nationalistic composer, and he must have felt keenly the desire to commune once more amid kindred spirits and familiar associations. In the nine years left him, his output concentrated almost exclusively in the nationalistic vein of opera and symphonic poems. And the American works were his last to attain universal favor among the music public.
Critics never ceased debating the nature of these works, with learned opinion generally stressing their Czech essence over any supposed American excrescences. Dvořák himself denied the incorporation of any actual American melodies in the compositions, but he also claimed, “I should never have written these works ‘just so’ if I hadn’t seen America.” For the average music lover, analysis is secondary to emotion anyway, and there is a certain spaciousness, a “swagger” in these works, that seems, well, American.
As a teacher, Dvořák left an American legacy that was rather barren. None of his conservatory pupils proved to be the American Beethoven or even the American Dvořák. Established American composers of the period, such as Edward MacDowell and Horatio Parker, continued to work in the Germanic tradition rather than experiment along the lines pointed out by Dvořák.
Yet even without disciples to nur- ture it, Dvořák’s influence survived. Ives marshaled the entire gamut of American popular music in the creation of his masterpieces of the Progressive period. During the thirties a whole generation of young American composers, led by Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Roy Harris, returned to native soil to find inspiration for serious works. And let it not be forgotten that the “classical” American work with which the average listener most closely identifies was labeled by its composer a “folk opera.” What Gershwin did in Porgy and Bess , in fact, infusing his own melodic creations with a Negro idiom, approached perhaps closer than anything else the modus of Dvořák himself.
Dvořák’s greatest contribution to American music, however, probably lay in the simple demonstration that great music could be written here. “It is one thing to receive the completed score of a new work from abroad,” said The Critic , hoping for Dvořák’s return, “but altogether a different thing to have the work fashioned and produced here. Somehow the process of construction leaks out.” Impatient at the tardy appearance of artistic masterpieces in the New World, some had seriously echoed the old suggestion that there was something about the American atmosphere, or soil, or milieu that militated against the exercise of the higher faculties. Not the least part of Antonin Dvořák’s legacy to the New World was the simple fact of that magical summer of 1893, when the composer from the banks of the Vltava found inspiration on the banks of the Turkey River.