Dvorak in America: Finding a New Voice

By Ethier, Scott | Humanities, November/December 2003 | Go to article overview

Dvorak in America: Finding a New Voice


Ethier, Scott, Humanities


ONE HUNDRED YEARS AFTER Antonin Dvorak's death, students are discovering the story of the composer who changed classical music in America. With a new book and multimedia DVD-ROM, they will learn about Dvorak and how he was influenced by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, African American spirituals, and other aspects of American culture he encountered during a trip to the United States.

"I'd like orchestras to think more like museums do-in terms of a broader intellectual and artistic and cultural purpose -rather than just cranking out concerts," says Joseph Horowitz, author of Dvorak in America, and director of historical projects for the American Symphony Orchestra League. Classical music in America, he says, "suffers terribly from its insularity."

In collaboration with Robert Winter, a multimedia designer and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Horowitz will bring the NEH-supported DVD, From the New World: A Celebrated Composer in America, into classrooms for field-testing this winter and early next year.

The debut comes in January when high school and middle school students from history and social studies classes will come together to hear the New Jersey Symphony play From the New World at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Dvorak's trip to America and the genesis of his symphony have riveted Horowitz and Winter for more than a decade. The story begins with philanthropist Jeanette Thurber, who convinced the composer to come to America in 1892 to act as the head of the National Conservatory in New York City. Thurber had founded the National Conservatory several years earlier with the idea that music students in the United States would no longer need to go overseas for their musical training. She saw in Dvorak an unusual composer who understood how to create a music of national character: in his compositions, he had taken inspiration from Slavic folk traditions in Moravia, Slovakia, Poland, and Russia, combining their harmonic modes with new rhythms and melodies. It was in this spirit that he composed his renowned Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances.

While writers such as Whitman, Thoreau, and Melville had crafted a distinctive American voice in literature, American musical culture centered on Europe. American composers were trained in Europe and wrote music that was virtually indistinguishable from their European models. Thurber felt it was time tocreate an entirely American music and charged Dvorak with training composers to carry out her vision.

The New York press was filled with articles about his arrival. Americans were impressed that Dvorak, the son of a Bohemian butcher, had worked his way up-with a little assistance from Johannes Brahms-to become one of Europe's most respected composers. Journalist Henry Edward Krehbiel, who would become one of Dvorak's most loyal supporters in the press, wrote in Century magazine that Dvorak's life was "a story of manifest destiny, of signal triumph over obstacle and discouraging environment. To rehearse it stimulates hope, reanimates ambition, and helps keep alive popular belief in the reality of that precious attribute called genius."

Just as America was taken by Dvorak, Dvorak was equally fascinated by America. In particular, he was captivated by the music and culture of African Americans and American Indians. "I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants," he writes in Music in America. "I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans."

One of Dvorak's students at the National Conservatory was the young African American singer and composer Harry Burleigh. Burleigh sang for Dvorak many of the spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his grandfather.

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