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Dvorak and Hiawatha

Two wicked questions to ask conductors of Dvorak’s New World Symphony are: “Why does the coda begin with a dirge?” and “Why is there a diminuendo on the final chord?” The musical content of the finale in no way dictates these developments. Obviously, a story of some kind – a “program” – is in play. The dirge is a pentatonic “Indian” theme with timpani taps. It is restated as an apotheosis. Then there is a robust arpeggiated tonic cadence and that final E major chord fading to silence. Any conductor who performs this music without a story in mind has failed the composer.

But what story? Any story that fits will do. But there is an obvious story already at hand: “Hiawatha’s Leavetaking” from Longfellow’s famous poem. Hiawatha sails his birch canoe into the purple mists of evening, “to the regions of the home-wind, to the land of the hereafter!” That, to my ears, is what the coda to the New World Symphony describes.

That Dvorak and Longfellow have something to do with one another is indisputable. The composer told New York reporters that the middle movements of his symphony were inspired by The Song of Hiawatha. We know that the opening of the Scherzo was envisioned as the whirling, spinning Dance of Pau-Puk Keewis at Hiawatha’s wedding feast. And, thanks to the music historian Michael Beckerman, we are pretty sure that Minnehaha’s death in winter inspired the heart-stopping middle segment – with pizzicato double basses – of the great Largo.

The alignment of Longfellow’s poem with Dvorak’s symphony is not only suggestive but supremely poetic. Dvorak was already stirred by The Song of Hiawatha when in Prague he read it in Czech. In New York, he re-read it in English (a language he knew). His crowning aspiration, in America, was to compose a Hiawatha opera or cantata. But it was not to be.

My own obsession with Dvorak’s Longfellow fixation long ago compelled me to create (with the video artist Peter Bogdanoff) a visual presentation for the Largo and Scherzo of Dvorak’s symphony, culling text from Longfellow’s poem and imagery from iconic nineteenth century American painters (Bierstadt, Church, Remington, Catlin, etc.); it’s been used by the New York Philharmonic and many other orchestras. I’ve also, with Mike Beckerman, created a nine-minute “Hiawatha Melodrama” for narrator and orchestra, also widely performed. (You can see and hear it by scrolling to 35 minutes at This combination of textual and musical fragments has now begotten a full-fledged, self-sufficient concert work: a 32-minute Hiawatha Melodrama in five parts: “Hiawatha’s Wooing,” “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” “The Death of Minnehaha,” “The Slaying of Pau-Puk Keewis,” and — an Epilogue — “Hiawatha’s Leavetaking.” The music is drawn from Dvorak’s New World Symphony and American Suite. In addition, I’ve composed sections myself, using themes from Dvorak’s symphony and suite, and also from the Larghetto (“Indian Lament”) of his Violin Sonatina, which happens to be a picture of Minnehaha.

The new Hiawatha Melodrama was premiered to a standing ovation last weekend by PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez (who also orchestrated the sections I’ve composed), with Kevin Deas as narrator. We’ve also just recorded it for Naxos, for a themed CD (“Dvorak and America”) that will also include music by Arthur Farwell (who as the leader of the “Indianists” movement in music called himself the “first composer to take up Dvorak’s challenge”).

In other words: I have just made my debut as a composer. As it happens, I’ve also just finished, in draft, my first novel: The Disciple: A Tale of New York in the Gilded Age. The novel is historical fiction – the story of Anton Seidl, who spearheaded the Wagnerism movement in America. At the moment, I don’t see myself writing any more “non-fiction” books. I’m a novelist now — and a composer, with more projects to come. Though I cannot explain these sudden personal and professional developments, they can’t be unrelated.


  1. Chuck Lavazi says:

    The first time I heard the Largo of the Dvorak 9th (then called the 5th, which shows what a geezer I am) the image sprang immediately to mind of an Indian looking out on a vast plain at sunset. This was long before I knew there was an Indianisf movement in American music or anything much about the 9ths origins; I was a pre-teen just learning about Classical Music. Thanks for the additional insight into one of my favorite symphonies.

    Currently rereading Ivory Trade in preparation for covering the Cliburn as part of a delegation from MCANA and enjoying the perspective

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