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In the Ear of the Beholder

Readers of this blog might (or might not) be wondering what’s become of me. There have been no postings in recent weeks because with the conclusion of the concert season I found it necessary to write half a dozen grant applications. This left little time for anything else other than complaining about it.
I am now in Pittsburgh, where I’m directing an NEH teacher-training workshop on “Dvorak and America” through the end of the month. After that, in August, I’ll be covering the Santa Fe Opera for the Times Literary Supplement (UK) — and presumably writing about it here as well. Then the season resumes in September — which for me means a Post-Classical Ensemble Gershwin festival in College Park.
The “Dvorak and America” institute, which I’ve previously described in this space (Jan. 23, 2010), has so far spent a lot of time with a little-known work: his American Suite, composed in New York in 1894. Postdating the New World Symphony, this is in many respects the purest example of Dvorak’s “American” style — a New World snapshot comprising vignettes (vs. the symphony’s heroic canvases). It invokes cakewalk and plantation song. The finale is an Indian dance that turns into a minstrel song with banjo accompaniment.
As it turned out, the institute’s instructors all had somewhat varying views of the Americanisms here inscribed by Dvorak. The Yale art historian Tim Barringer, for whom Dvorak furnishes the nearest musical equivalent to the “American sublime” of Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, hears riverboats where I hear Indians. The music historian Robert Winter hears even more Indians in the American Suite than I do. The pianist Steven Mayer, who eloquently performed the American Suite for us, takes a brisker tempo than I do in the Andante — which for me evokes the “sadness to despair” Dvorak felt upon encountering the Iowa prairie.
My most controversial book was AmUnderstanding Toscanini — How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music (1987). It was praised and denounced with strange vehemence. Reading the reviews, I marveled that no writer read the book I thought I had written — until I absorbed that there is no definitive reading of any book. To begin with, transferring intentions — impressions, arguments — into words is always imprecise. What is more, a reader brings to a book their own impressions and arguments.
So it is with the American Suite. I bring to this music a mass of knowledge about Dvorak’s American sojourn, and the conviction that it mattered greatly, both to him and to us. My reading says something about the music, and also something about me.
Teaching this past week, interacting with teachers, responding to their responses, I think I have learned something about my obsession with Dvorak. My Dvorak is a mediator. He mediates between the New World and the Old. His American Suite isn’t just an Old World-style piano piece with a New World patina; it achieves a synthesis. Gershwin matters to me for the same reason. In Classical Music in America, I say that his early death subverted his capacity to heal the schisms separating classical and popular styles — which is to say, to contribute to the creation of a classical music for Americans (Dvorak’s American mission).
All this tells me something about certain tenacious personal schisms. My lifelong devotion to classical music — music fundamentally European — complicates my American identity. I take a special interest in hybrids. In fact, my book-in-progress — Moral Fire: Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle — studies hybrid Americans from the late Gilded Age. Exploring them, I explore my self-contradictions.

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