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Dvorak’s America

naxos dvorak
The current Times Literary Supplement (UK) features my latest rant on Dvorak as an American composer, as follows:

Earlier this summer, Ivan Fischer came to New York with his Budapest Festival Orchestra to offer two memorable concerts of music by Antonin Dvorak. The repertoire included Dvorak’s last two symphonies: no. 8 in G major, and no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”). On the web, Fischer commented in a filmed English-language interview: “[Dvorak] came out of the nineteenth century patriotic emotional group of composers. And at that time, one has to stress, being in love with your country had nothing negative — it wasn’t like the nationalism of a later period. Dvorak the absolute lover of Bohemia gives us an insight into East European culture – the feeling people had at the time – like nobody else.”

To a New Yorker, Fischer’s statement seemed chiefly notable for two omissions. The first, conveyed loudly but implicitly, was of something Hungarian: that Dvorak, the benign nationalist, rebukes the combative nationalism of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party, which Fischer opposes. The second omission was of something American. Fischer overlooks an understanding I take for granted: that Dvorak’s Ninth has more to say about New World than Old World identity – an understanding that bears on the nature of patriotic sentiment in music generally.

When Fischer mentions “the nationalism of a later period,” he could of course equally have had in mind Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin: all music-lovers. Also relevant, from a much earlier period, is Plato’s anxiety about the capacity of music to stir mass sentiment. Certainly in Dvorak’s time – the late nineteenth century – musical nationalism was not invariably wholesome.

In late nineteenth century America, the central authority on music and race was the New York music critic Henry Edward Krehbiel. Krehbiel wrote about American music, Czech music, Hungarian music, all kinds of music. And he admired it all – including Jewish music. He also wrote (in 1914) the first book-length treatment of African-American folk song, in which he chastised “one class of critics” for “their ungenerous and illiberal attitude” toward black Americans. Krehbiel’s allies in New York included a visionary music educator: Jeannette Thurber, who in 1892 lured Dvorak from Prague to head her National Conservatory of Music. Thurber’s conservatory admitted all black students on full scholarship. She wanted them around because she was convinced of the power of “plantation song” to stir constructive national feeling. When Thurber handed Dvorak a mandate to help found an “American school” of composition, Dvorak fixed on the African-American and Native-American as representative embodiments of “America.” Krehbiel supported and championed this endeavor. One result was the “New World” Symphony.

From the moment of its premiere at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893, Dvorak’s symphony was both influential and controversial in America. The question asked and re-asked was: “Is it American?” New York said yes. But the music critic Philips Hale, a central arbiter of Boston taste, denounced Dvorak as a “negrophile.” For Boston, “America” meant the Mayflower. New York, by comparison, was a melting pot. New York critics admired in the “New World” Symphony a plethora of “black” and “red” allusions. The third theme of the first movement and the Largo’s English horn tune seemed self-evidently inspired by African-American song. (The former practically quotes “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The latter was transformed after Dvorak’s death into “Goin’ Home” – an ersatz spiritual so pervasive that to this day many Americans assume it is a slave song quoted by Dvorak.) Dvorak’s absorption of Native American music and lore was also noted – not least because Dvorak himself told members of the New York press that the middle movements of his new symphony were inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855), in 1893 still the best-known, most-read work of American literature.

In a tour de force of musical journalism, the New York Times’ W. J. Henderson – a close colleague of Krehbiel – filed a 2,000-word review that remains one of the most eloquent descriptions of the “New World” Symphony ever written, one which clinches the twin pathos of the Indian and the slave as polyvalently conveyed by Dvorak. Henderson called the Largo “an idealized slave song made to fit the impressive quiet of night on the prairie. When the star of empire took its way over those mighty Western plains blood and sweat and agony and bleaching human bones marked its course. Something of this awful buried sorrow of the prairie must have forced itself upon Dr. Dvorak’s mind.” Of “the plantation songs of the negro” — songs which inspired Dvorak as they had “struck an answering note in the American heart” – Henderson had clarion words: “If those songs are not national, then there is no such thing as national music.”

But in decades to follow, this first reception of the “New World” Symphony was forgotten. The symphony was canonized as a Slavic masterpiece whose sadness conveyed “Heimweh” – homesickness for Bohemia. In 1966, Leonard Bernstein (for whom an “American school” began only with Copland) preposterously claimed that Dvorak’s Largo “with Chinese words could sound Chinese.” A program note by Michael Beckerman for Ivan Fischer’s “New World” Symphony performance concluded differently: “Some have argued that there is nothing American about the work, that Dvorak could have just as easily written the work at home. They are wrong.”

And they are. America’ s leading Dvorak scholar, Beckerman has tirelessly excavated the intimate relationship binding the “New World” Symphony with “The Song of Hiawatha.” Dvorak testified that the beginning of his Scherzo – the symphony’s third movement – was inspired by the scene “in which the Indians dance” in Longfellow’s narrative poem. There is only one such scene: it is “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.” The wedding dancer, Pau-Puk-Keewis, begins by “treading softly like a panther,” then whirls, stomps, and spins “eddying round and round the wigwam,/till the leaves went whirling with him,/like great snowdrifts o’er the landscape.” This idealized, mythic mega-dance is the hurtling main theme of Dvorak’s scherzo, with its incessant tom tom and exotic drone, and the “primitive” five-note compass of its skittish tune. Never mind that real Indian dances don’t sound like this. Dvorak saw and heard dancing Indians in Manhattan and in Iowa. He knew Krehbiel’s specimens of Indian song. He was not attempting to retain the flavor of indigenous music – as Bartok would, and as would Arthur Farwell in the wake of Dvorak (about which more in a moment). The other main events of the Wedding Feast are the gentle song of Chibiabos and a legend told by Iagoo. As Beckerman as incontrovertibly demonstrated, Dvorak builds these episodes, too, into his Scherzo. It is a de facto Hiawatha tone poem.

Beckerman has also tracked down evidence that Dvorak’s Largo – in addition to evoking prairie desolation, which Dvorak found “sad to despair”; in addition to evoking the sorrow songs of the plantation – drew inspiration from the death in winter of Hiawatha’s wife, Minnehaha. This is the funereal passage with pizzicato double basses and piercing violin tremolos, shuddering with the chill of Longfellow’s “long and dreary winter” – a threnody of the most exquisite poignancy. The very end of the symphony comprises another dirge (with timpani taps), then an apotheosis, then – a conductor’s nightmare – a dying final chord requiring the winds to diminish to triple-piano. Although Beckerman does not here propose a Hiawatha correlation, this coda is plainly extra-musical: it requires a story. The story at hand fits: it is Hiawatha’s leavetaking, sailing “into the fiery sunset,” into “the purple mists of evening.”

Last spring, Beckerman and I completed a 35-minute “Hiawatha Melodrama” for narrator and orchestra (in musical parlance, a “melodrama” mates music with the spoken word). It can be heard on a new “Dvorak and America” Naxos CD. Combining passages from “The Song of Hiawatha” with excerpts from the “New World” Symphony, it maximizes the symphony’s programmatic content. It glimpses the unrealized “Hiawatha” opera or cantata that was Dvorak’s crowning ambition during his American sojourn. “From the New World” was a step in this direction. It is not itself a “Hiawatha” program symphony: the Hiawatha episodes are not in proper sequence. And “Hiawatha” is a sporadic presence, not ubiquitous. Rather, this last Dvorak symphony transitions to the folkloric tone poems he would compose upon returning to Prague: pieces in which every detail tells a story as well-known to his Bohemian audience as “The Song of Hiawatha” was known to Americans.

Though listening to such late Dvorak tone poems as “The Wood Dove” or “The Golden Spinning Wheel” without reference to the Karel Erben ballads that they set (in some passages, word for word) would be a perverse experience, the knowledge that Dvorak’s Scherzo was inspired by the Dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis does not require that we hear it as an Indian dance. That said, the “Hiawatha” elements of Dvorak’s symphony remain an essential point of reference. They support the epic, elegiac splendor of the work, which begins with a sorrow song in the low strings and ends with an apotheosis of pain. Obviously, Dvorak’s sadness of the prairie and sadness of the Indian and sadness of the slave resonate with homeward longings (and with who knows that other personal sadnesses). My own experience of “From the New World” is of a reading of America drawn taut, emotionally, by the pull of the Czech fatherland.
And there are other reasons to attend to Dvorak’s “Hiawatha” references. They tell us something important about Dvorak the man, and about musical meaning.

The most startling confession in Igor Stravinsky’s many conversations with Robert Craft is that his Symphony in Three Movements (1945) aligns with pictorial imagery. Although commissioned by the New York Philharmonic as a World War II victory opus, the Symphony is widely considered a prototypically abstract neo-classical exercise affirming Stravinsky’s notorious credo that music can only be about itself. “Certain specific events excited my musical imagination,” Stravinsky told Craft. “Each episode is linked in my mind with a concrete impression of the war, almost always cinematographic in origin. For instance, the beginning of the third movement is partly a musical reaction to newsreels I had seen of goose-stepping soldiers. The square march beat, the brass-band instrumentation, the grotesque crescendo in the tuba – all these are related to those repellant pictures.” Stravinsky went on to furnish a scenario for the entire six-minute finale. But he concluded: “In spite of what I have admitted, the symphony is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all.”

Though his most recent biographer, Stephen Walsh, dismisses the pertinence of Stravinsky’s “supposed” testimony to Craft concerning the martial imagery informing the Symphony’s outer movements, Stravinsky’s pictorial narrative for the finale works splendidly – I happen to know, because (with the video artist Peter Bogdanoff, for California’s Pacific Symphony) I’ve tried it out, with actual World War II newsreel clips. And though Stravinsky’s distinction between “programmatic” music and music inspired by “specific events” may sound sophistic, it is not: he was sharing workshop secrets with Craft.

If even Stravinsky, the modernist scourge of extra-musical meanings, privately resorted to extra-musical inspiration, what about the composers who came before? Their workshops were crammed with pictures – even for symphonies. Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s amanuensis, testified that Beethoven typically relied upon scenery and events to – we can use Stravinsky’s phrase – “excite his musical imagination.” Dvorak is an extreme case. His ten Legends – three of which Ivan Fischer conducted in New York with exemplary creative flair – are plainly miniature tone poems. The slow movement of the G major Symphony – which Fischer delivered with a revelatory precision of narrative detail – obviously tells a story. I have no idea what characters and plots Fischer may adduce in these pieces – because Dvorak, characteristically, left no clues That he conceded that “Hiawatha” impregnated the “From the New World” may well have been a begrudging response to New York’s importunate critics, who were at the same time – unlike their European brethren – proactive daily journalists. Krehbiel, in particular, was granted a “New World” Symphony audience in Dvorak’s study that he later recalled as one of the supreme satisfactions of his professional career. Dvorak was coy, and said different things to different New York interrogators. But the net confessional was substantial. We are not left in the dark, as with the Legends, the G major Symphony, and countless other Dvorak essays in musical description. We can actually identify the Hiawaha stories he used as a creative spur. Even the pay-off is extra-musical.

Dvorak was a village butcher’s son. He drank beer. He loved birds and kept some, uncaged, in his Manhattan apartment. He wrote to the New York Herald: “It is to the poor that I turn for musical greatness. The poor work hard; they study seriously. . . . If in my own career I have achieved a measure of success and reward it is to some extent due to the fact I was the son of poor parents and was reared in any atmosphere of struggle and endeavour.” As a Bohemian, Dvorak proudly belonged to a Hapsburg minority experienced in the rigors of marginalization. He refused to move to Vienna or to change his first name to “Anton.” The resisted polishing his German. In America, Dvorak identified with the disenfranchised. The 1890s were not remote from the memory of slavery. The extinction of the red man was a living reality; turn-of-the-century Americans widely believed that he would vanish completely. Dvorak’s African-American assistant, Harry Burleigh, was the grandson of a slave who bought his freedom, who learned to read, who sent his daughter to college; Dvorak knew this saga intimately. Though not a gregarious type, Dvorak in Iowa daily conversed with the members of the Kickapoo Medicine Show. If the “New World” remains the most beloved symphony composed on American soil, it is partly because as listeners we sense, however subliminally, Dvorak’s compassionate experience of black and “red” Americans. He was not an easy or uncomplicated man. His National Conservatory students often found him daunting and irascible. But the artist in Dvorak was defined by personal humility, sympathetic understanding, and democratic instinct – qualities that set him apart from such contemporaneous symphonists as Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Bruckner. What the “New World” Symphony ultimately imparts is that its composer was a great humanitarian.

Dvorak’s American legacy remains ponderable. The twin sources for an “American school” that he proposed yielded twin prophecies. He told the New York Herald that “Negro melodies” would foster “a great and noble school of music.” He also espoused a future American music inspired by the Native American. If the second of these predictions proved false, Dvorak was nonetheless a central promulgator of a four-decade “Indianist” movement in American music. And if hundreds of Indianist songs, symphonies, and operas amassed a mountain of kitsch, there is as well some buried treasure. Arthur Farwell, who declared himself the first American composer to “take up Dvorak’s challenge,” was impelled by the “New World” Symphony to found a Wa-Wan Press for himself and fellow Indianists. At his best – in the Navajo War Dance No. 2 for solo piano (1904); in “Pawnee Horses” for eight-part a cappella chorus in Navajo (1937) — Farwell is the closest thing to an American Bartok, honoring the astringency of indigenous sources. This is a truncated Dvorak legacy that deserves to be remembered.

The “Negro melodies” Dvorak championed of course more than endure: he correctly foresaw a black American musical future. Though it has taken many directions, one is specific to Dvorak and to Harry Burleigh. It was Burleigh, after Dvorak’s death, who transformed plantation song into a genre of art song. Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson sang Burleigh’s version of “Deep River.” It is sung even now. In Burleigh’s lifetime, “Deep River” (not “Swing Low”) was the iconic spiritual, a grave hymn of inspiration and hope. This was a compositional achievement: an earlier “Deep River,” sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, was relatively upbeat.

What inspired Burleigh to recast “Deep River”? Could it have been Dvorak’s Largo, so similar in tone and tempo? Among the versions of “Deep River” that Burleigh crafted, there is one for a cappella male chorus. Its chordal preamble cites the brass chorale with which Dvorak prefaces his English horn tune. We can actually say that this great American folk-song, as known today, would not exist without the influence of a symphony composed by a visiting Bohemian. I cannot imagine a purer example of musical nationalism as a wholesome force.


  1. What nonsense . Mr.Horowitz has gone to absurd lengths in this article on Dvorak to prove a point but seems
    to display a total lack of understanding music as a creative art . The length of the article can be
    thought of as an elephant giving birth to a mouse . All music is about itself – it is the most abstract of the
    arts . The W.J. Henderson 2,000 words are ridiculously laughable . The music world is full of idiots
    of his calibre writing endless nonsense.The symphony “imparts” only that he was a composer of music ,
    the humanitarian interpretation comes from Mr. Horowitz and has nothing to do with the music score . If
    Mr. Horowitz can show that anywhere in the score comes forth the musical expression “humanitarian ”
    we shall all be in his debt . What Dvorak thought while composing it we shall never know ,but we do know he put together a series of sounds that pleased and still pleases many people who interpret the work as they
    see fit .

    • Michael Beckerman says

      The disrespectful tone of this posting reflects either a continuing deterioration of the standard of discussion and/or the obvious anxiety on the part of the person posting about just what music is and what it means to be a composer. None of us know the answer to this, but to categorically state that the only thing that mattered to a composer was putting forth a succession of “pleasing sounds” should be rethought. Dvorak was a complex human being and neither Mr. Horowitz or the poster of this comment know precisely what he meant to do, and none of us have the right to insist on a single way of hearing or understanding music. The facts are clear: for whatever reason, Dvorak wanted his audience in New York to know about the connections between the New World Symphony and a range of specifically American phenomena, including the Longfellow poem. Whether this was, to revisit the comments of this post, to “simply” make the sounds more “pleasing,” or whether Dvorak had other motives, is something for us to discuss respectfully. And if we cannot, then we should be asking ourselves why we are so exorcised by the curiosity of others.


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