Richard Nisley

America by way of Bohemia -- the music of Antonin Dvorak
Music - Classical Released - Oct 20, 2013

As American as apple pie. That would be the music of Antonin Dvorak. Which is a curious thing for a composer who was born and bred in Bohemia.

Before Aaron Copland gave America a distinctly nationalistic style of orchestral music, Dvorak was embracing the melodies of Native and African Americans and employing them in his “New World” symphony, in his “American Flag” cantata, and in his “American” String Quartet. That was in the 1890s, before Aaron Copland was born.

Dvorak (pronounced duh-vor-zshack) was born near Prague in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1841. The son of a butcher, he took up music and discovered he had a gift for melody. His talent was recognized early and he was schooled in music composition. Early on Dvorak was retooling Slavic folk tunes into exalted orchestral pieces. The ease with which he composed and the richness of his melodies reminded people of another gifted musician, Franz Schubert. Johannes Brahms was an early admirer who introduced him to all the right people and helped advance his career.

With recognition came friends in high places, financial security, and the time to focus full-time on composing. String quartets, choral works, concertos, symphonies, opera--nothing seemed beyond his reach. They loved him in Vienna--he composed his Sixth Symphony for the Vienna Philharmonic. They loved him in London, where he conducted the premier of his Seventh Symphony. They loved him in Russian: in 1890, he conducted the orchestras in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And they loved him in America: in 1892, he traveled to the United States where he was made director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Musically speaking, Dvorak had the run of the place. The New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were at his beck and call.

Dvorak’s main goal in America was to discover “American Music” and engage it, much as he had used Czech folk idioms within his music. He felt that through the music of Native Americans and African Americans, Americans would find their own national style of music. Dvorak began taking on pupils. One of them was Harry Burleigh, a young composer. Burleigh introduced Dvorak to traditional American spirituals.

In the winter and spring of 1893, Dvorak was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write what was destined to become his most popular work, his Ninth Symphony, entitled “From the New World.” He spent the summer of 1893 with his wife and five children in the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa. During that time he composed two more pieces destined to be among his most popular: the String Quartet in F (the “American”) and the lyrical Cello Concerto in B minor.

A dispute over his salary hastened Dvorak’s return to Europe. He could have lived anywhere in the world but chose to return to Bohemia where he lived out his final years. He spent those latter years composing chamber music and opera. He passed away in 1904.

Dvorak’s career in America served as an impetus in the development of a distinct American style of music that influenced future generations. The strains of a number of American folk tunes can be heard in his Ninth Symphony and other works written while in America. He influenced the generation of American composers that preceded Aaron Copland, notably Amy Beach, William Grant Still, and George Chadwick. Having championed American music in such a big way, it’s not exaggerating too much to say Dvorak was America’s first great composer.

Dvorak is still big in America. For the past 50 years, the most regularly performed orchestral music in American concert halls is Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony “From the New World.” In 1943, the U.S. Navy honored Dvorak by christening an American Liberty ship the “USNS Antonin Dvorak.”

On the list of world’s 50 greatest composers, Dvorak is twelve and the only non-German (besides Tchaikovsky) in the top 12.

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