September 27, 1892: the S.S. Saale, bound from Southampton, England, moves slowly into New York Harbor and docks at Hoboken. As the passengers dismount, a party of seven comes into view on the quayside. Among them is a dignified man of medium height, with chiseled features and a pair of intense, fiery eyes. Another group is eagerly awaiting them on the dock—a man by the name of Sainton (the secretary of New York’s newly inaugurated National Conservatory of Music), along with a group of Czech immigrants and a few newsmen. Addressing the journalists in English (yet with a distinctively clipped accent), the dignified man introduces himself. His name? Antonín Dvorák. One of the newsmen later reports the meeting as follows:
He is not an awesome personality at all. He is much taller than his pictures would imply, and possesses none of the bulldog ferocity to be encountered in some of them. A man about 5 feet 10 or 11 inches, of great natural dignity, a man of character, Dvorák impresses me as an original, natural, and--as Rossini would say--to be natural is greater than to be original.
So began Dvorák’s love affair with the New World--an affair that would give birth to some of the most magnificent works in the classical repertory and, more importantly, establish America’s musical language--the national vernacular of a young nation on the verge of towering success. In the spring of 1895, when Dvorák waved goodbye to the shores of New York, he would leave behind him a country that had, in a sense, discovered its own identity--or, at least, had its blind eyes opened to the seeds of its national heritage. Only think how close America came to never experiencing this awakening...
To begin the story of Dvorák’s New World affair, it is necessary to jump back several years to early 1884, when the great composer was still on the other side of the Atlantic, establishing his rapidly burgeoning reputation throughout England. In the meantime, the American wife of a millionaire grocery tycoon was fashioning her own reputation as a patroness of the arts. Jeanette M. Thurber, who had expended over one and a half million dollars on failed operatic ventures, decided to launch a new project by establishing a “National Conservatory of Music,” intended to effectively compete with the Metropolitan Opera House (founded in the previous year). She selected the famous Belgian baritone Jacques Bouhy as the new conservatory’s first director, and operated the school on philanthropic, rather than commercial, lines. Based on this benevolent philosophy, the National Conservatory was able to admit students of limited financial means--including, along with white students, a number of African Americans and Native Americans (a circumstance highly unusual at the time, and thus greatly to Mrs. Thurber’s credit). As musicologist Jean Snyder observes, female students were also granted admission—a phenomenon equally extraordinary in the 1880s and 1890s.
After Bouhy returned to Europe in 1889, Mrs. Thurber decided to add prestige to her young institution by replacing him with an internationally renowned composer--the question was, “Who?” She asked Adele Margolies, a Viennese pianist who was then teaching in New York, to recommend a candidate; following consultations with her former teacher in Vienna, Margolies suggested either Dvorák or his Finnish contemporary Jean Sibelius. After prolonged discussions with members of her staff and other prominent musicians, Mrs. Thurber finally sent a cablegram to Dvorák (at his home in Vysoká, Czechoslovakia) in April of 1891. Only four months earlier, Dvorák had accepted a professorship at the Prague Conservatoire and thus replied that he was unable to consent to the offer. Mrs. Thurber, however, remained undaunted and undeterred--in her mind, Dvorák would be her next director. On June 6, 1891, she sent the following telegram from Paris: “Would you accept position Director National Conservatory of Music, New York, October 1892 also lead six concerts of your works?” As added enticements, she included further details about the position—among them, a yearly salary of $15,000 (at the time, an extraordinarily large sum equivalent to a veritable fortune; in fact, all of Dvorák’s published compositions up to that time had not yielded a comparable profit).
Now Dvorák faced a real dilemma; after consulting with his wife and close friends, he was still unable to make up his mind. To his friend Alois Göbl he wrote, “The directorship of the Conservatoire and to conduct ten concerts of my own compositions for eight months and four months vacation, for a yearly salary of 15,000 dollars or over 30,000 gold francs. Should I take it? Or should I not?” Mrs. Thurber continued to inundate him with cajoling cables and eventually sent a contract that simply required Dvorák’s signature. According to his son Otakar, a decision was finally reached jointly by Dvorák and his wife. In his collection of memoirs titled Antonín Dvorák, My Father, Otakar recalls the scene as follows:
I remember the lunch when my mother again discussed this question with Father and she proposed that we all vote on it. At that time eight of us sat at the table. Some votes were “for” and some votes were “against,” but there were more votes “for.” The contract was in Father’s study on his table, ready to sign. Mother discontinued lunch and took Father’s hand. They went into the study, and she gave him a pen to sign the contract... Mother took the contract and delivered it to the post office. That made the trip to America definite.
By the autumn of 1891, Mrs. Thurber’s dream had come true--the great European composer was committed to spending at least two years in America.
On October 12, 1892, the United States was to celebrate the fourth centennial of Christopher Columbus’s first landing in America. In Mrs. Thurber’s mind, this event--which would take place only two weeks after Dvorák’s arrival in the U.S.--was the perfect opportunity for her to introduce the renowned composer to the New World. With this object in mind, she sent Dvorák a copy of "The American Flag"--a poem by Joseph Rodman Drake about the U.S. army’s glorious victory over England in the War of 1812--and petitioned him to use the poem as inspiration for a choral work commemorating the centenary. Although Dvorák was happy to oblige her, the poem failed to reach him by the end of June, and he decided instead to undertake the composition of his own musical calling card--a magnificent Te Deum for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. In August, he finally received the promised copy of "The American Flag"--only a month before he was due to set sail for America. While he did make a few sketches before setting off, the score would not be completed until the Columbus celebrations were a thing of the past.
At three o’clock on the afternoon of Thursday, September 15, 1892, Dvorák and four companions departed from Prague--the other members of the party were his wife Anna, their daughter Otilie (aged fourteen), their son Antonín (aged nine), and a young man named Josef Jan Kovarík. Born in the United States only a year after his parents had emigrated there from Czechoslovakia, Kovarík had returned to his native land to study music at the Prague Conservatory. Being a cellist, he was not one of Dvorák’s pupils, but “the Master” (as Kovarík reverently called him) was impressed by the young man’s talent and suggested that Kovarík accompany him to America as his personal secretary. Kovarík, whose respect for Dvorák knew no bounds, joyfully accepted the offer. During this American expedition, Dvorák’s other four children were left to the care of their grandmother in Czechoslovakia.
Throughout the sometimes-turbulent passage across the Atlantic, Dvorák proved himself a born seaman by being the only one of the party to escape seasickness. As Kovarík later recalled, Dvorák was sometimes the only passenger strong enough to remain in the dining room:
The Master proved an excellent sailor; the whole day, it might be as stormy as you like, he walked up and down the deck. Several times it happened that he was the only one to put in an appearance in the dining room, and when Capt. Rinck saw him alone, he invited him to his table. When they had breakfasted or dined at their ease, they lit their cigars and chatted.
After arriving safely in New York on September 27, the family lodged briefly at the Clarendon Hotel on the corner of Park Avenue and East 18th Street--only yards away from the National Conservatory. Finding hotel life noisy and expensive, however, they soon moved to a humbler apartment at 328 East 17th, a five-minute walk from the Conservatory. To Dvorák’s thrifty soul, the rent of $80 a month was “for us a lot of money, but here quite normal”; his financial worries were slightly appeased by the Steinway firm’s installation of a grand piano, free of charge. On October 21, Mrs. Thurber triumphantly presented her “protégé” to the American public--in Carnegie Hall, he conducted three of his concert-overtures (In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello) and the premiere of his recently completed Te Deum, with an orchestra of 80 and a choir of 300. The performance was a stunning success.
Overall, Dvorák enjoyed a cordial relationship with the citizens of New York and was particularly pleased by the democratic nature of American society, where there were neither Princes nor Counts, Lords nor Sirs--in the words of Dvorák biographer Gervase Hughes, “everyone, from the President downwards, was just plain Mister.” His consenting view of the American class system is reflected in a letter that he wrote from Boston on November 28, 1892:
Today my Requiem is supposed to be presented especially for workers and poor people, and on Wednesday, November 30th, for the “rich and intelligent people.” This is the American way. But I like it. Why shouldn’t the poor, hard-working man who labors a whole week to get a piece of bread recognize Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart? Classic works like these are often presented here, and concerts are overfilled.
No doubt, Dvorák was also impressed by the high-tech nature of America’s liveliest metropolis. As conductor and musicologist Maurice Peress speculates, “I think that the energy of the city, the extraordinary festivities, the electric lights...perhaps colored his view of America as a place of energy and vigor and youth.” He was also delighted to discover in Central Park an aviary that housed pigeons; for the remainder of his stay in New York, he visited them at least once a week. The birds, which he had kept at his home in Vysoká, were one of his passions; their low cooing soothed his music-loving ears, and he never tired of observing their habits. As Patricia Hampl relates in her book Spillville, “When a polecat once got into the pigeon coop and killed them all, Dvořák had the birds buried in the front yard at Vysoká because, he said, they were his friends.” To gratify his other passion--trains--he undertook, as often as his duties would allow him, an hour-long journey on the “El” (New York’s elevated railway network) to reach a particular vantage point that enabled him to watch the express trains rumble by.
Despite his somewhat eccentric interest in pigeons and trains, Dvorák always viewed his musical responsibilities as his top priority. His daily schedule consisted of three hours of teaching, supplemented by biweekly rehearsals with the Conservatory’s orchestra. While pleased with both his duties at the Conservatory and the quality of his students, he was particularly in favor of the free tuition granted to African American students. In a letter to some friends in Prague, he expressed his optimism about the potential of American musicians: “There is more than enough material here and plenty of talent. I have pupils from as far away as San Francisco. They are mostly poor people, but at our Institute teaching is free of charge, anybody who is really talented pays no fees! I have only eight pupils, but some of them are very promising.” He also encountered on the East Coast a surprisingly developed musical scene--among the most prestigious institutions already in existence were the Metropolitan Opera House, the New York Philharmonic Society (directed by Anton Seidl), the New York Symphony Society (directed by Walter Damrosch), the Boston Symphony Orchestra (directed by Artur Nikisch), and a number of flourishing choral societies. What he did not find was a school of American music, and it was in this area that he determined to make a difference. By encouraging the evolution of a distinctively American music, Dvorák had a profound influence on his students. As he described his mission, “I did not come to America to interpret Beethoven or Wagner for the public. This 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 to express it.” To his surprise, he found that Americans simply did not know how to describe their nationality in musical terms--a problem confounded by the continual influx of foreign immigrants, especially those from southern and eastern Europe. While acknowledging that the whole world’s music was quickly absorbed in this heterogeneous nation, he persisted in believing that music could indeed reflect a national unity. In his own expressive words,
All races have their distinctively national songs, which they at once recognize as their own, even if they have never heard them before. When a Czech, a Pole, or a Magyar in this country suddenly hears one of his folk-songs or dances, no matter if it is for the first time in his life, his eyes light up at once, and his heart within him responds, and claims that music as his own. So it is with those of Teutonic or Celtic blood… It is a proper question to ask, what songs, then, belong to the American and appeal more strongly to him than any others? What melody could stop him on the street if he were in a strange land and make the home feeling well up within him?
Through close relationships with his African American pupils--in particular, Henry Thacker Burleigh--Dvorák became acquainted with Negro spirituals. As Burleigh wrote, “It was my privilege to sing repeatedly some of the old plantation songs for him at his house, and one in particular, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, greatly pleased him, and part of this old spiritual will be found in the second theme of the first movement of the [symphony From the New World], first given by the flute.” According to Maurice Press, Burleigh later remembered Dvorák asking him, “Is that really the way it went? Do it for me again.” In Press’s words, Dvorák immediately recognized that “the inflection, the bending of the notes, the surprising turns, the rhythmic underpinnings” were “special” and “different”--things that had not been heard before. Indeed, Dvorák’s intoxication with “plantation songs” led to this groundbreaking pronouncement in the New York Herald on May 21, 1893:
Negro melodies [are] the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year, I was impressed with this idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or any purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes, and they move sentiment in him.
Because his interest in America’s folk music extended to that of the Native American, he repeatedly expressed in the New York press his enthusiasm for Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. Though citing the Negro melodies as the “most potent” and “most beautiful” of America’s music, he recognized a number of other significant influences--among them, “the songs of the Creoles, the red man’s chant, [and] the plaintive ditties of the homesick German or Norwegian.”
While Dvorák’s comments on the importance of native music appear quite natural from a modern perspective, they were new and daring at the end of the 19th century and threw the composer headlong into the ongoing debate about the prospect of an American national music. Some, including the American composer Edward MacDowell, openly rejected his advice. While MacDowell would eventually incorporate Native American melodies into his own works, his commentary at the time was scathingly critical of Dvorák’s views:
We have here in America been offered a pattern for an “American” national musical costume by the Bohemian, Dvorák--though what Negro melodies have to do with Americanism in art remains a mystery. Music that can be made by “recipe” is not music, but “tailoring.” Masquerading in the so-called nationalism of Negro clothes cut in Bohemia will not help us.
Such comments would become even more contemptuous and widespread following the premiere of Dvorák’s next major composition. In January 1893, after completing Mrs. Thurber’s pet project (a cantata based on "The American Flag"--a work that was not performed in New York, and which Dvorák himself never heard), he was free to embark upon a true labor of love...his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor.
“...from all over the hall there are cries of ‘Dvorák! Dvorák!’ And while the composer is bowing we can see this poet of tone who can move the heart of a great audience.”--New York Herald, December 17, 1893
In the spring of 1893, Dvorák completed the score of his Ninth Symphony and wrote on the final page, “Praise God! Finished on 24 May 1893... Antonín Dvorák.” The work, of which he had begun sketches the previous December, represented the arrival of a truly American music. The comments of New York Times critic William J. Henderson appeared on December 17, one day after the triumphant premiere of Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony (performed by the New York Philharmonic under Anton Seidl at Carnegie Hall). Paraphrasing Henderson’s review, Joseph Horowitz describes the symphony as “an amalgam of impressions of New World energy and bustle, of an imagined American West (which Dvorák had yet to visit when he began the work), of ‘Negro melodies’ and Hiawatha.”
Indeed, influences can be traced to a number of American sources--the principal theme of the first movement bears a resemblance to the minstrel song Little Alabama Coon, the second movement’s cor anglais theme is related to another minstrel song (Massa Dear), the C-major flute tune in the first movement might have been derived from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and a viola passage in the last movement could have come from Yankee Doodle. At the same time, as Horowitz points out, the symphony’s “technique and construction are plainly Germanic, and Dvorák’s own signature remains Bohemian. But he is here a Bohemian rapidly and eagerly schooled in Americana.” In fact, this analysis closely coincides with Dvorák’s intent, which he explained as follows prior to the symphony’s first London performance:
I called the symphony “From the New World” because it was the very first work I wrote in America. As to my opinion, I think that the influence of this country (...the folk songs that are Negro, Indian, Irish, etc.) is to be seen, and that this and all other works written in America differ very much from any earlier works, as much in color as in character...
Both the public rehearsal of the symphony on December 15 and its premiere on the following day were sensational occasions, in which Dvorák was treated to the most enthusiastic ovation of his life. In a letter dated December 20, he wrote to a friend:
The success of the symphony was tremendous; the papers write that no composer has ever had such a success. I was in a box; the hall was filled with the best New York audience. The people clapped so much that I had to thank them from the box like a king! alla Mascagni in Vienna (don’t laugh). You know how glad I am if I can avoid such ovations, but there was no getting out of it, and I had to show myself willy-nilly.
While the majority of New York’s critics followed Henderson’s example and enthusiastically endorsed Dvorák’s American accent, the symphony received a much colder reception in staunchly conservative Boston. Here, as Joseph Horowitz has written, “the notion of an ‘American’ symphony influenced by ‘Negroes’ and ‘Indians’ inflicted confounding and troubling impressions.” Boston’s most influential music critic, Philip Hale, wrote after the Boston premiere of Dvorák’s symphony that it did not sound any more American than it did Scotch, Scandinavian, or “anything you please.” Though grudgingly admitting that it would “undoubtedly be popular, and deservedly popular,” he was vehement in denying the legitimacy of its allegedly American sources, of which he strongly disapproved. According to Horowitz, “Dvorák became the subject of a journalistic feud between Hale and the acknowledged ‘dean’ of New York’s critics, the pompous yet dauntingly learned Henry Krehbiel”--a feud most likely stemming from the jarring contrast between New York’s largely immigrant population and Boston’s “enclaves of mature intellectual repose.” Referring to Krehbiel’s December 15 review of the “New World” symphony in the New York Tribune, Hale lashed out in a diatribe of sarcasm:
Mr. Krehbiel finds an American tune in a phrase of four measures announced by the horn in the first allegro. It is “American,” because it has a rhythmical construction “characteristic of the music which has a popular charm in this country”; and this rhythmical construction is what? Why, the Scot’s snap, “a device common in Scottish music,” and “it is found in Hungarian music, too.” Therefore, it is American... The next specimen of Americanism discovered by Mr. Krehbiel is the larghetto where, to use his language, “we are stopped from seeking forms that are native and thrown wholly upon a study of the spirit. It is Dr. Dvorák’s proclamation of the mood which he found in the story of Hiawatha’s wooing, as set forth in Longfellow’s poem.” Hiawatha was an Indian. Therefore the symphony is American.
In response, Krehbiel first suggested that, if the “New World” symphony had been less successful in Boston than in New York, “an explanation might be found in the circumstance that it was not so well played.” He then addressed Hale’s attacks of the symphony’s “right to be called American” by echoing Henderson:
The sarcastic and scintillant Mr. Philip Hale of The Boston Journal in particular makes merry of the term and thinks it wondrously amusing that anything should be called American which has attributes or elements that are also found among the peoples of the Old World... Mr. Hale does not deny that Dr. Dvorák’s melodies reflect the characteristics of the songs of the Negroes in the South, and that the symphony is beautifully and consistently made. If so, why should it not be called American? Those songs, though they contain intervallic and rhythmic peculiarities of African origin, are the product of American institutions: of the social, political and geographical environment within which the black slave was placed here; of the influences to which he was subjected here; of the joys and sorrows which fell to his lot here. The crude material may be foreign; the product is native.
Despite Krehbiel’s compelling argument, Boston’s musical community continued to dismiss popular and indigenous music as a contaminant--or, at least, as the product of a population too small for its songs to be considered “American.” As time would reveal, however, New York’s critics had recognized and wrote about the truth of the matter--that America’s music had arrived, and that it was glorious.
“I studied with the birds, flowers, trees, God and myself.”--Dvorák
After completing his masterpiece in the spring of 1893, Dvorák was entitled to a vacation. In February, Kovarík had proposed, instead of the long trip back to Vysoká, spending the summer holiday in Spillville, Iowa--a village inhabited by Czech settlers (including Kovarík’s father, who was both the director of the village school and the church organist). After hearing from Kovarík of its rural tranquility and Bohemian authenticity, Dvorák readily agreed to the proposal. In the words of his son Otakar, “I do not remember my father ever making such a quick decision in his whole life.” The plan was tainted by one difficulty--neither Dvorák nor his wife Anna could bear to be any longer separated from the four children who remained in Prague. Consequently, young Anna, Magda, Otakar, and Aloisie arrived in New York on May 31; and three days later, the party caught the Chicago express from the Pennsylvania Railroad Harbor Terminal in New Jersey. Dvorák was delighted—finally reunited with his entire family, he reveled in watching the changing of locomotives at each station and marveled at the natural scenery, which reminded him so vividly of his beloved Bohemia. After spending a day in Chicago, the party continued on to Calmar, Iowa, where they were met by Kovarík’s father, who conveyed them by buggy the five miles to Spillville.
In Spillville, which clearly reminded Dvorák of his home in Vysoká, he felt completely at ease. Among a small set of people who spoke his own language, surrounded by farmland and woods that could have passed for the Bohemian countryside, away from the crowds and bustle of East 17th Street--here was the ideal place for Dvorák to compose. Yet, as Patricia Hampl observes, “He could have found peace and quiet closer to New York. He could even have found other Czechs nearer to hand.” Why, then, did he travel thirteen hundred miles to the remote village of Spillville? Because, in Hampl’s words, “he could not have replicated his countrymen’s experience of immigration without crossing the wider stretch of land.” He felt a need to understand the emotions of the American immigrant--to experience for himself both the physical and psychological journey that his countrymen had undergone. By doing so, he was seeking to understand the essence of the American spirit. As Hampl hypothesizes, “Perhaps his coming here is best understood as an oblique homage paid to immigration, the cruel/kind song that beguiled so many of his people.”
According to Otakar, “His way of life there was much like that life in Vysoká: he took morning walks, composed, met with local people, watched the pigeons sitting on the roofs, and finally played the nice organ in the St. Wenceslaus Church.” Indeed, the routine that he followed in Spillville was much like the one that he pursued in his summers at home. As Kovařík remembers in his Reminiscences,
The Master’s day in Spillville was more or less as follows: He got up about four in the morning and went for a walk to the river and returned at five. After his walk he worked; at seven he was sitting at the organ in the church. Then he chatted a little, went home, worked again and then went for a walk. He usually went alone--here he had none of the nervous tension from which he sometimes suffered in Prague--and often nobody knew where he had gone. Almost every afternoon he spent in the company of some of the older settlers. He got them to tell him about their bitter and difficult beginnings in America; the old men told him how they went to help with the building of the railway 40 miles from Spillville, and how they went the long way to work on foot, while their wives with the children toiled on the farms.
Predictably, Spillville’s peaceful and relaxing atmosphere released in Dvorák a new creative urge, and during only two days in June, he completed sketches for the famous String Quartet in F Major (the “American” quartet). After finishing the score ten days later (at the end of the last bar, he wrote, “Thanks to the Lord God. I am satisfied, it went very quickly”), he eagerly arranged the first “scratch” performance in a private home in Spillville. The instrumentalists were as follows: Dvorák himself on first violin; Kovarík, Sr. (the secretary’s father) on second violin; Kovarík’s daughter, Cecilie, on viola; and Josef Kovarík on cello. In three of the quartet’s four movements, pentatonic melodic phrases and erratic rhythmic figures are frequently repeated. Half Bohemian and half African-American in nature, they seem to be remnants of the “New World” symphony and thus produce the same distinctively “American” sound.
One week during the summer of 1893, a group of Kickapoo Indians arrived in Spillville, peddling their “herbal remedies” to the Czech settlers. Although Dvorák had no interest in purchasing medicinal herbs, he was greatly intrigued by the songs that they sang in the village street during the evenings. Perhaps as a result of this exposure, Indian influences may be detected in his next composition--a string quintet in E-flat major, completed during July. Both the quartet and quintet are clearly inspired by Dvorák’s experiences in America and, specifically, in Spillville. As he himself testified, “I know that my new Symphony and also the string quartet and quintet (composed here in Spillville) would never have been written in the manner in which I have written them, had I not seen America.” Indeed, the chirruping heard through the Scherzo of the string quartet is a direct transcription of the song sung by scarlet tanagers in the woods and meadows of Spillville. Carefully marked down in Dvorák’s black notebook as he enjoyed his solitary country walks, these songs of nature--birds, wind, moving water--form the soul of his compositions from this time. They are, quite literally, musical distillations of AMERICA.
For a week in August, Dvorák took his two oldest children (Otilie and Anna) to the World Fair in Chicago, where he participated in “Czech Day” on August 12, 1893. In a letter to a friend a few days later, he described the event as follows:
On this day there was a great procession of all American Czechs at the Exhibition, where a big concert was held and a large Sokol (gymnastic) display. There were about 30,000 Czechs in the procession and the concert was in the huge Festival Hall (orchestra 114 performers) and I conducted my compositions, and Mr. Hlaváč from Russia conducted the other works by Czech composers. The orchestra, as also the performance, was splendid and the enthusiasm general... The Exhibition is gigantic and to write of it would be a vain undertaking. It must be seen, and seen very often, and still you do not really know anything; there is so much and everything so big--truly “made in America.”
The works that Dvorák conducted at this event were his G-major symphony, three Slavonic Dances, and the overture to Josef Kajetán Tyl. Following a Midwestern tour during the first week of September (including stops in Omaha, Sioux City, Minneapolis, and St. Paul), Dvorák reluctantly bade adieu to Spillville on September 16, 1893. As he wrote several weeks before leaving town, “Spillville will remain a happy memory for the rest of our lives.”
“The Soul uneasy, and confined from home...”--Pope
As the family traveled back to New York from Spillville, they stopped in Buffalo to see Niagara Falls--a site that stirred Dvorák to exclaim, “My goodness, what a Symphony that would make!” His euphoria, however, would soon subside, as he settled back into the modest little apartment on East 17th Street. While in quiet and peaceful Spillville, Dvorák had been nearly as happy as in his own beloved Bohemia. Once he found himself back among the bustling throngs of New York, however, his homesickness became stronger than ever. As an antidote to nostalgia, he zealously plunged himself into his work at the Conservatory, thus leaving little time for composition. In November, he completed a sonatina for violin and piano (a present for his children Otilie and Antonín); the sonatina’s slow movement incorporates a melody that had come to Dvorák in September, while he was visiting the Minnehaha Falls near Minneapolis. During the winter of 1893-94, he also completed one of his best-known works--a collection of ten Biblical Songs (op. 99), Czech settings of texts from the Psalms (written for voice and piano). The composition may have been Dvorák’s response to the recent deaths of Gounod, Tchaikovsky, and Hans von Bülow (the latter two had been his close friends). He was probably even more distressed, however, by the news that his 79-year-old father had fallen dangerously ill (the old man eventually died on March 28).
December of 1893 witnessed the triumphant premiere of Dvorák’s “New World” symphony, followed by the Kneisel Quartet’s first two performances of the “American” quartet--in Boston on New Year’s Day, 1894, and in New York on January 12. These wildly successful premieres greatly pleased both Dvorák and Mrs. Thurber; the latter, who felt vindicated in her initial choice of Dvorák as director of the Conservatory, attempted to persuade him to renew his contract. In light of Dvorák’s increasing homesickness for Vysoká, it is not surprising that the agreement they eventually reached was not exactly what Mrs. Thurber had desired. Following a five-month summer vacation in 1894, Dvorák would remain in New York only through the spring of 1895.
On May 18, he and his family sailed for Czechoslovakia, where they spent a relaxing and tranquil summer at Vysoká. Returning to New York one last time, Dvorák--along with his wife and nine-year-old son Otakar--arrived in the city on October 25. More than ever, he now experienced painful longings for his home and his other children; as Otakar recalls, “The best medicine against his homesickness was his composition. His job helped him overcome such longings and the depressing thoughts that accompanied them.” Nevertheless, his duties at the Conservatory still prevented him from attending to his composition as often as he would have liked. During the early months of the year, he did devote some time to a cello concerto--his second, and perhaps the greatest ever written for that instrument. As Johannes Brahms grumbled when he first read Dvorák’s score, “Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a violoncello concerto like this? If only I had known, I would have written one long ago!” Although Dvorák dedicated the work to Hanuš Wihan, it might have been inspired by Victor Herbert, the New York Philharmonic’s Irish-born principal cellist, whom Dvorák had recently befriended. While Otakar recalls that the cello was “an instrument he personally disliked since it sounded too much like muttering,” the concerto (especially the magnificent first movement) is often considered, in the words of Gervase Hughes, “one of Dvorák’s most inspired and best-constructed achievements in the symphonic field, and indeed may be said to be beyond criticism.”
The Cello Concerto in B Minor proved to be Dvorák’s last completed composition in America. On April 16, 1895, he, his wife, and their young son departed from New York on the S.S. Saale--the very same ship that had carried them to the New World almost three years earlier--and waved their final goodbyes to the United States. Though Dvorák’s stay had been relatively brief, his contributions to the development of American music within that short space of time are virtually incalculable. By recognizing and legitimizing African-American and Native-American music, he introduced America to the Americans, revealing a musical heritage that had, in fact, been in place for nearly a century, but had been stubbornly excluded from the country’s “mainstream” musical scene.
Inspired by a passionate love for his own homeland, Dvorák realized the importance of a country’s musical language--both as a means of expressing nationalism, and (especially in America) as a unifying force among a group of widely diverse citizens. While he may always be most beloved in the hearts of his Czech countrymen, Americans owe Dvorák an even greater debt; for without his pioneering work, the United States might have remained forever dependent on the composers of Europe...and forever blind to the unique beauty of its own musical landscape. In the words of Augustus P. Gardner, America had indeed “woken up”--and what a beautiful day was dawning!
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Dvorák & America. Produced and directed by Lucille Carra. 60 min. Travelfilm Company/PBS. 2000. Videocassette.
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