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Dvořák In America

June 2024
15min read

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.

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”).

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.

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.

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.

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.


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