Dvořák In America

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I did not come to America to interpret Beethoven or Wagner for the public. That is not my work and I would not waste any time on it. I came to discover what young Americans had in them and to help them express it.”

Antonín Dvořák was very clear about his mission in the New World. He never wanted to be an ambassador representing the music of the Old World but rather a discoverer of what the New had to offer.

It was a woman who had brought this lion of Continental music to America—a woman and fifteen thousand dollars a year. Jeannette M. Thurber, New York society leader and arts patron, had established a National Conservatory of Music of America and had been determined to snare a recognized master to direct it. In 1891 that meant she had to look to Europe. Thurber went straight for the author of the popular Slavonic Dances and the D Minor Symphony, and once she waved her checkbook, Dvořák didn’t require much further persuasion.

He landed in New York on September 27, 1892, the same day that the body of the popular bandmaster Patrick Gilmore arrived in the city from St. Louis for its final resting place. The return of this favorite son received far more play in the Gotham press than did the arrival of the foreign composer. Thurber was not there to greet Dvořák in person; she sent the conservatory’s secretary in her place. A delegation of Dvořák’s Czech compatriots was also on hand to welcome him and escort him, his wife, Anna, daughter Otilie, and son Antonin (four more little Dvořáks having been left behind in the Old World) to the Clarendon Hotel on Fourth Avenue.

In a few days Dvořák’s presence was more officially established, as Thurber introduced him to the conservatory’s students and staff, and a crowd of three thousand New Yorkers, mostly Germans and Czechs, attended a reception and banquet in his honor at the Central Turnverein Halle. “Dr. Dvořák is a tall man of compact build, with a prominent forehead, a pair of expressive and vivacious dark eyes, and a short beard,” The New York Times informed its readers, adding that while he spoke fluent English (the by-product of eight visits to Britain), his accent and “flexible countenance” readily marked him as a foreigner. The Times ranked him with Brahms and Tchaikovsky among the creators of instrumental music.

 

Of all the arts, music had seemed the most reluctant to emigrate to America. Stephen Foster appeared to be the only native composer worth bragging about in 1892 (Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who had died in 1869, would wait seventy-five more years to be rediscovered), but Americans who were acquiring a passion for the symphonies of Beethoven and the music dramas of Wagner dismissed Foster as a mere trifler with popular songs. Dvořák would soon try to set them straight on that.

Only after the Civil War could eminent European composers be induced even to visit the New World. Johann Strauss, Jr., had come to Boston for an International Peace Jubilee in 1872, composed a waltz that quoted “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and left considerably the richer for a few weeks’ appearances. Jacques Offenbach had visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, leaving no music of consequence but a delightful journal of his experiences instead. Andrew Carnegie had enticed Tchaikovsky to ennoble the dedication of Carnegie Hall in 1891, but, again, the Russian soon went back home.

Much was expected, therefore, of Dvořák, who was committed to at least two years’ residence in America. Writing in The Century , the critic Henry Krehbiel said that the combination of self-made man and nationalistic composer made Dvořák the ideal exemplar for American musical aspirations, promising “freshness and forcefulness of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic contents, and newness and variety in the vehicles of utterance.” Thurber, who had unsuccessfully attempted to found an American opera company before her National Conservatory project, apparently harbored hopes of inspiring Dvořák to compose the “great American opera” during his stay. In the meantime she had specifically commissioned from him a large choral work on an American theme to celebrate the Columbus quadricentennial in 1892.

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he said. His students disdained such sources.
 

Such vague, impractical hopes were bound for a letdown. For one thing, Dvořák had not received Thurber’s cantata text, a popular bit of nineteenth-century fustian by Joseph Rodman Drake called The American Flag , until practically the eve of his departure for New York. Consequently he had not composed his setting in time for his conducting debut at Carnegie Hall on October 21. While waiting for the poem, he had composed a Te Deum , and he gave New Yorkers the premiere of that work instead, along with three recent overtures (“In Nature’s Realm,” “Carnival,” and “Othello”).