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Dvorak and the American Experience of Race — An Antidote to “Checkbox Diversity”

“I know there has been a lot of discussion about how we can make a difference by programing one African-American composition per concert,” says Lorenzo Candelaria, the incoming dean of Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.  

“I call that ‘checkbox diversity.’ What I’ve found to be far more impactful is to take a piece and really live with it for a while, sit with it, talk about it  — contextualized programing. I’d think that would be a far richer experience in the concert hall. I think we’d be a better country for it, because the concert hall is one of the few spaces in which we can all connect together as a community.”

In this excerpt from PostClassical Ensemble’s latest More than Music film, what Candelria is thinking about (at 1:15:11) is Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which he terms “a flashpoint for a broader discussion . . .  transformative music that could be having a lot of impact right now.”

Dvorak’s symphony may not have been the work of a Black composer. But Dvorak embraced the African-American experience to a degree that would be controversial today. He undertook a “Black voice” in his Largo. Even more controversial: he endeavored to embrace the Native American experience via Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. The resulting composition is a minefield for the cultural appropriation police. And yet it remains the most beloved symphony ever composed on American soil.

What accounts for the enduring appeal of the New World Symphony? It’s our awareness, however subliminal, that Dvorak was – as JoAnn Falletta (the admired Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic) so eloquently expounds (at 1:17:45) – “one of the greatest humanitarians.”His symphony surges with compassion for the African-American, victimized by the bitter legacy of enslavement, and for the Native American, in 1893 still facing possible extermination. 

We owe our knowledge of the Dvorak-Longfellow connection mainly to the music historian Michael Beckerman, who more than anyone else has exhaustively explored alignments between Dvorak’s symphony and Longfellow’s poem. What to make of The Song of Hiawatha today? In our film, the literary historian Brian Yothers, in a tour de force of contextualization, tells us what we most need to know in ten minutes. “Was it a worthy model,” he asks, “or something more like fertilizer, the necessary manure out of which something like the New World Symphony could grow, but not particularly valuable in itself?” Yothers’ answer is copious – you can listen to it for yourself (at 33:00).

Central to our film is the Hiawatha Melodrama I co-composed with Beckerman in 2013, with orchestrations by Angel Gil-Ordonez. We here sample our world premiere recording on Naxos (named one of the best CDs of the year by Minnesota Public Radio). Combining the spoken word (verses from Longfellow) with music (passages from the New World Symphony and two other examples of the American Dvorak), the Melodrama makes an indisputable case both for the presence of Hiawatha in Dvorak’s symphony, and the eloquence of Dvorak’s response. It’s been performed, in whole or in part, by more than a dozen orchestras. 

The performers here are Kevin Deas and PostClassical Ensemble, with Angel Gil-Ordonez conducting. You can judge for yourself the caliber of commitment and understanding. For our film, the visual artist Peter Bogdanoff has culled pertinent American paintings and added artwork of his own. I believe that applying visual content to a symphony is in most cases a terrible idea. Here, it’s a logical idea: the cultural vocabulary of Dvorak’s America is reclaimed. JoAnn Falletta testifies (33:00): “As a young conductor, studying Dvorak’s symphonies, they were very Bohemian, coming from the heart of Europe . . . But there’s a completely hidden heart in [the NewWorld Symphony] – and I since I’ve known that I have be never been able to hear [it] in the same way. I hear it in a much richer way, a more sinewy way, a darker way, a more painful way, a way that’s somehow more important and moving.”

Finally, our film investigates the present-day pertinence of Dvorak’s ecumenical vision of the American experience – not least in teaching the story of American music. In fact, our follow-up zoom chat, on September 23, will feature commentary by students at Howard University, who this week are experiencing our film in remote classrooms. You can register for the chat here.The other participants will include Howard faculty members, plus JoAnn Falletta, Lorenzo Candelaria, and Mark Clague from the University of Michigan. Their filmed commentary was so rich I did not have room for all of it. 

Here (below) is another story told by Candelaria, which ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s about failing to persuade a major charitable foundation to support touring a program of African-American spirituals (with Kevin Deas) to unincorporated Mexican-American colonias in West Texas. This attempt to forge “pathways to higher education through music” was received as “culturally insensitive.” “I was told, ‘You’re trying to take African-American music into a largely Hispanic community.’ I was floored. We’ve stopped talking about the broader human story that anyone can tell.” The human stories told by the New World Symphony are truly inexhaustible.

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