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Dvorak Teacher-Training

As anyone who is a parent or teacher keenly appreciates, the cultural vocabulary people of my generation (b. 1948) once took for granted is fast disappearing. High school students and college freshmen can no longer be expected to know Marlene Dietrich, or Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Porgy and Bess. Such knowledge was once instilled at home, or via Life Magazine or the Ed Sullivan Show.
The absence of the arts and humanities in middle and high school classrooms is widely decried, but this is mainly lip service. In New York City (where I live), you can graduate from a “top” public or private high school without learning anything much about music or the visual arts. Compensatory action of some kind is urgent.
The period I know best, as a cultural historian specializing in music, is America’s Gilded Age – the decades from the Civil War to 1900. It seems merely obvious to me that even the most cursory acquaintance with this period would necessarily include Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (once the best-known, most-read work of American literature) and the paintings of Frederic Church (which toured nationally to huge and appreciative audiences). Longfellow and Church apprise us how Americans have gone about understanding themselves. But they are not taught in American History classrooms. Nor is Dvorak’s New World Symphony (1893), which served a comparable function.
In fact, the story of Dvorak in America (1892-1895) is a singular tool for integrating music, visual art, and literature into the Social Studies curriculum. It interfaces seamlessly with Longfellow and Church, with the Indian Wars and the slave trade, with plantation song and Stephen Foster, with Buffalo Bill and Yellow Journalism. As director of an NEH National Education program, I was able to write a young readers book, Dvorak and America, and to commission a state-of-the-art interactive Dvorak DVD from Robert Winter and Peter Bogdanoff at UCLA. These will be the core materials for a three-week NEH Teacher Training Institute hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony this July. The eligibility requirements are liberal (e.g. administrators, librarians, home-school parents can apply). The deadline for applications is March 1. The faculty includes leading scholars of American painting and music (including Foster and blackface minstrelsy), as well as the bass-baritone Kevin Deas and the pianist Steven Mayer. The Pittsburgh Symphony website has complete information.
That the Pittsburgh Symphony is the first orchestra ever to host an NEH institute is itself auspicious. Orchestras have valuable educational programs, but they tend to be satellite enterprises focused on elementary school and Young People’s Concerts. As orchestras continue to move toward a new model of inter-disciplinary thematic programming, new educational opportunities will emerge, facilitating linkage to high schools, universities, and colleges. Certainly they can play a vital role in reconstituting Social Studies instruction as a “vertical slice” embracing culture as an integral part of the national experience — and of personal identity.


  1. Greetings, Joe! It’s been a long time since we read Beethoven violin sonatas together. Your Dvorak project looks important, and I will recommend to a colleague that she apply to the NEH-Pitt institute.
    Through your work you are trying to stop the decline of our culture by fostering the conditions whereby new composition (in music, and in other fields) is part of, and draws from, but yet transcends and adds to, that culture, with no arbitrary prejudices as to what may be drawn upon from that culture.
    I particularly like the Dvorak idea because his goal was not to foster the writing of glorified folk music, but rather was to foster the writing of American art music (as he knew it in his time and place) that Americans would love and find essential to their lives. Perhaps you know how much he was, or was not, acquainted with American composers like Foote or MacDowell or Beach or Chadwick, and perhaps he made remarks about some of them. From my knowledge of them I would have to agree that there was a problem with their music “connecting to” much of an audience apart from the northeast coast upper classes that could afford to maintain their European connections via the “grand tour” or via European-trained professors.
    It is possible, however, that Dvorak did NOT know of the actually beautiful compositions that were being written and had been written by these composers and many others. (I would argue that these pieces deserve preservation in the active repertoire of orchestras and ensembles and choruses for that reason–their beauty–alone.) On this point, it is crucial to note that a work of art grows old only if that beauty ceases to be realizable in that work. As long as there be a performer who can render that beauty (and the mental-spiritual-emotional life of it), and there be a new listener to experience it for the first time, then one can say that the piece is as if born again, and has transcended its time and place of origin.
    Two brief anecdotes relating to the above: In the early 1980’s while doing orchestral playing at Lincoln Center (NYC), during a break I walked to the top floor of the NYPL Performing Arts Library into a sizeable room FILLED with the scores of composers of ‘American’ music. I was shocked to think that I, a graduate-level student of music, knew so little of this American history in my chosen field. This set me onto a course of exploration that culminated in a concert and a modest amount of teaching on the subject.
    2nd anecdote: For anyone going to Pittsburgh, drop in at the University of Pitt library and ask to see the collection of–you guessed it, not Stephen Foster [whom I do admire], but an obscure, American, strictly-classical composer–one Fidelis Zitterbart (1848-1914; his grandson is a professor of piano at Carnegie Melon). This fiddler was probably the most prolific of American composers: more that 1400 scores in that library. And probably generally a mediocre composer who wrote way too much too hastily. But he continues to be left out of the Grove Dictionary of American Music. Isn’t that telling?

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