Dvorák's New World Inquiry

How a Czech composer helped America find its authentic voice

Dvorák's New World Inquiry
Illustration By Robert Faires

Imagine a divided America, facing a new century – one lucky class made enormously rich by a booming new economy, with a less lucky, increasingly resentful class lagging far behind. Right: the Nineties. But not those Nineties. Push back another hundred years, to the late 19th century, the period Mark Twain named the Gilded Age.

Twain didn't mean it kindly. He meant that the period's gaudy material gloss concealed corruption deep within. America sat upon great heaps of money and buried wells of confusion, darkness, dishonesty, and loss. The mythic, defining frontier of the West was closing. The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 had not only ended the Indian wars but in a sense nearly finished off the American Indian himself – and the continuing popularity of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha demonstrated white America's mixed feelings about that. The Civil War freed the slaves, but now what to think about the American Negro and his place in this country? Maybe close one's eyes awfully tight and not think of him at all?

It was a time of great transition and great anxiety, in which questions like "Who are we?" and "What does America mean as a nation?" hung painfully in the air.

In 1892, Jeannette Thurber, wealthy founder of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, had an idea for how to begin answering those questions (an idea that places her firmly in the 19th century, as it would be unlikely to occur to anyone today): She decided to hire the foremost classical composer of the day – a Bohemian Czech renowned for basing great classical airs on the folk music of his people – as the new director of her conservatory. This foreign genius would teach young American composers how to find the true American musical voice and thus define us as a nation.

That composer was Antonin Dvorák, and this year, to mark the 100th anniversary of his death, the University of Texas is hosting an ambitious festival called New Worlds: Dvorák in Search of America. Using as a springboard Dvorák's brilliantly fruitful two-year visit to our country, during which he composed some of his finest work, the festival will examine how music can give voice to a nation.

But the festival doesn't dwell only on music; it encompasses history, art, American studies, theatre, and even a certain Live Music Capital of the World. Festival director Joseph Horowitz, former executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and author of a book for young readers, Dvorák in America, calls the event "a unique cross-disciplinary opportunity to explore the questions 'What is America?' and 'Who is an American?' both as they were asked and answered at the turn of the century and as they remain pertinent today."

"All that is needed for a great and noble school of music"

Consider for a moment a world in which classical music was seen as a potential solution to the American identity crisis. That's a world very far from our own, and one might feel cynical at the almost hilariously American character of this venture: We shall spare no expense in buying our own authentic voice! (And Dvorák was indeed expensive, with a salary half again as high as the mayor of New York's.)

But we might also admire the very American boldness of Jeannette Thurber's vision. America is a made nation, a composed nation, not one that grew organically from a land shared over thousands of years. We would never do anything as other nations had. Why shouldn't a brilliant and thrilling composer help transform our music, as he had transformed that of his own land?

Tim Barringer, an associate professor of art history at Yale who will be speaking at the festival, says that "the idea of 'America' in the 19th century, a hugely powerful concept for many, largely excluded Native Americans and African-Americans." But when he arrived in New York in 1892, Dvorák was what Horowitz calls "an instinctive democrat." Already enthralled with Indian culture – he had read Hiawatha in Czech – in the United States Dvorák heard plantation songs for the first time. He found there the roots of that much-craved authentic American voice. As quoted in the New York Herald in 1893, Dvorák said,

I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. These are the folk songs of America, and your composers must turn to them. ... 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.

What's striking is how unerringly right – and against considerable odds – Dvorák clearly was. As we now know, the music of black Americans evolved into of one of our greatest and most truly American art forms: jazz (and its happy, scraggly stepchildren, rock and R&B).

What makes Dvorák's 1893 perception so remarkable is how many layers of cultural gauze and garbage he had to see through. Karl Hagstrom Miller, a lecturer in UT's Department of History and School of Music who often writes about popular music for The Texas Observer, notes that there is "some debate about what Dvorák meant when he said 'negro melodies': genuine folk songs or songs from the blackface minstrel stage like those of Stephen Foster – whose tune 'Old Folks at Home' Dvorák arranged and performed while in the U.S. Many white Americans had similar thoughts: equating black music with the caricatures of the minstrel stage – not unlike some equated Native American culture with Longfellow's poem."

As the recent compilation album Beautiful Dreamer demonstrates, Foster was an extraordinary songwriter. But he was, undeniably, white. For Dvorák to conflate his music with that of American blacks may make 21st-century hair stand on end. But Dvorák and Jeannette Thurber also declared that the National Conservatory was "to be thrown open free of charge to the negro race," as New York Herald writer James Creelman put it (like whites, blacks had to audition for entry). "It is a bold innovation," Creelman added, "but those who have heard the Black Patti sing or Blind Tom play must have wondered why it was that no serious attempt was made to organize, train, and refine the musical talent of the negro race in the United States."

Black Patti and Blind Tom: again, 21st-century hair stands aghast. Still, Dvorák and Thurber's radical proposal opened the school to many blacks, among them the singer Harry Burleigh, the grandson of a slave who had bought his own freedom. After his time at the conservatory and as Dvorák's protégé (he sang many hours of spirituals for the composer), Burleigh went on to become an important arranger and historian of spirituals as well as a composer himself. (The UT Chamber Singers will perform Burleigh's "Deep River" and other spirituals prior to the Austin Symphony concert Friday, Nov. 12.)

"And so, it is very wild here, and sometimes very sad"

Was Dvorák's own music influenced by America? While here he wrote his masterpiece, the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Opus 95 "From the New World," commonly called the New World symphony. Horowitz describes its Carnegie Hall premiere in December 1893 as "the climactic moment in Dvorák's American career."

But is the New World symphony – you've almost certainly heard its tuneful swelling, its crashing and yearning – American-sounding? Or is it only a picture of America, painted in European colors? What does it mean for music to "sound American," anyway? Barringer says, "Music and nation relate interestingly. There are many pieces of music – e.g., Copland's Appalachian Spring – which strike many listeners as unmistakably American; others, like Elgar or Vaughan Williams, are considered inherently and audibly British. But when one tries to analyze why this is so, it's impossible to put a finger on the essential reason."

Gunther Schuller, the conductor, jazz historian, and Pultizer Prize-winning composer, is blunt about the American-ness of the New World symphony: "Personally, I find very little American influence in it," he says in an interview on the UT Web site. But then he immediately notes "the final cadence – where there's a bass line right out of 'Shortnin' Bread.' If that isn't jazz, what is it? It certainly made me sit up the first time I heard it. I wouldn't dare to make a definite connection to black American music, however; maybe it's just a coincidence."

But Horowitz in his program notes talks about how deeply Dvorák was influenced by the American landscape. The composer spent a summer in rural Iowa and wrote a friend, "It is very strange here ... especially in the prairies there are only endless acres of field and meadow. That's all you see. ... And so, it is very wild here, and sometimes very sad, sad to despair."

It was in his first weeks on that lonely prairie, which he came to love, that Dvorák composed the exquisite String Quartet No. 12 "America" – half-jaunty and half-haunted, like the Midwest itself. (The Miró Quartet will perform this piece at Bates Recital Hall on Friday, Nov. 19.)

American art has without question been shaped by the stark and extraordinary American landscape and our fraught, sometimes destructive relationship with it. Barringer talks about the "elegiac quality in painting and music of the American sublime," adding, "the expansion of industry and population and the genocidal destruction of Native American life and habitat was undoubtedly viewed by some, from the early 19th century onwards, as a tragedy."

But the influence of Indian culture and music on the American voice, and on Dvorák's work, is even more charged and unclear than the influence of black music, largely because what Dvorák and most other whites knew of Native American culture was so wrapped in romantic gauze as to be utterly obscured. Barringer notes that leading Dvorák scholar Michael Beckerman "finds in the Largo of the New World symphony an elegy for the Native American, based on more or less explicit allusions to Longfellow's Hiawatha." Indeed, Dvorák attempted and abandoned an opera of Hiawatha – but arguably Hiawatha counts as an influence by Longfellow, not genuine Indian culture. (Come to think of it, hasn't America itself been influenced more by its ever-changing idea of Indian culture than by the reality of that culture?)

In his program notes, Horowitz discusses "the 'Indianists' movement [Dvorák] helped to create," which produced "a huge repertoire of Indianist songs, sonatas, and even operas, many of which quoted actual Native American tunes." Some of these will be represented at the festival, including Arthur Farwell's strange and galvanizing Navajo War Dance, which ought to make for an interesting contrast to Lucien Douglas' presentation of the "Hiawatha Melodrama," a narration of parts of Longfellow's poem set to Dvorák's music.

It's a great deal to cover in one festival: a major epoch of American history and the transformation of American music based on its black and Native American roots, as well as some of our most important landscape painting and poetic texts – and a lot to pile on the shoulders of one short, fierce-eyed Bohemian peasant. But when you listen to the New World symphony, you get the sense he can handle it. Dvorák helped reshape American music, in part by insisting that white American composers recognize black American music as one voice, and maybe the truest voice, of this nation. In retrospect, Jeannette Thurber's investment was not such a bad one after all.

New Worlds: Dvorák in Search of America continues through Nov. 22 on the UT-Austin campus. For information, visit www.finearts.utexas.edu/Dvorak.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More classical music
All Over Creation: Classical Alchemy
All Over Creation: Classical Alchemy
How Austin is transmuting the music of old into dance, art, and comedy

Robert Faires, Sept. 30, 2011

More by Katherine Catmull
Making Play Pay
Making Play Pay
Is anyone making a living at acting? Bueller?

Jan. 22, 2015

Actors' Inequity
Actors' Inequity
The Cost of Art IV: The artists onstage in Austin aren't just not paid what they're worth, many aren't paid at all

Jan. 23, 2015


classical music, American music, African-American music, Native American music, plantation song, Antonin Dvorák, Jeannette Thurber, New York National Conservatory of Music, Wounded Knee massacre, Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha, New Worlds: Dvorák in Search of America, Joseph Horowitz, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Dvorák in America: In Search of the New World, Tim Barringer, Karl Hagstrom Miller, UT School of Music, Stephen Foster, New York Herald

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle