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“An Act of Empathy” — a Dvorak Radio Documentary

When PostClassical Ensemble produced an hour-long film about Dvorak and “the American experience of race” last September, we hardly envisioned turning it into a 45-minute public radio special for the holidays. But that’s what happened, thanks to an invitation from Rupert Allman, who produces the nationally distributed radio magazine “1A.” You can hear, it and read about it, here.

Jenn White, the 1A host, begins: 

“Hip Hop, Jazz, Pop – whatever the genre, music has the power to move us – and teach us something else about our own history and our place in it. Over the decades one narrative has formed around an iconic piece of classical music – a symphony that’s been described as introducing American music to itself.”

What follows is a sustained exploration of the “racial” content of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, with interpolated musical excerpts.

I summarize:

“If the New World Symphony remains the most beloved symphony composed on American soil, I think that’s because in the sadness and poignance of this work we recognize, however subliminally, an act of empathy –- Dvorak’s empathy for the African-American, born in slavery, and for the Native American, facing extinction.”

I add:

“But there’s an elephant in the room – ‘cultural appropriation.’ It’s a term we hear a lot nowadays. And it’s pertinent because Dvorak – a Czech by birth – is obviously borrowing from traditions not his own.” That is: he draws inspiration from the sorrow songs of slaves, and – via Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – from Native America. There follows a terrific commentary by the eminent African-American bass-baritone Kevin Deas, whom we hear singing “Goin’ Home,” and also “Steal Away” in the imperishable arrangement by Dvorak’s one-time New York assistant Harry Burleigh. 

The other music we audition is taken from the Hiawatha Melodrama – the 35-minute composition for narrator and orchestra I created with the music historian Michael Beckerman – as recorded on PCE’s singular Naxos CD “Dvorak and America.” Premiered by Angel Gil-Ordonez and PCE in 2013, our Melodrama has been widely performed by American orchestras – and was also named one of the best CDs of the year by Minnesota Public Radio. 

In addition to Angel, Kevin, and myself, the participants in our radio show (which I produced with Peter Bogdanoff, who so ingeniously adds visual content to our PCE films) include Melissa Constantin, a Howard University biology major who delivers a memorable performance of Harry Burleigh’s “Wade in the Water.” The music historian Mark Clague talks about the urgency of a cultural and educational response to the murder of George Floyd. Finally – as in our film – JoAnn Falletta delivers the last word, embracing Dvorak as a “great humanitarian,” testifying to his “authenticity and honesty,” his “capacity to grow in a foreign country” – “an astonishing example to us today.”


  1. I think there has been a lot of confused ideology about cultural appropriation. There are clearly times when culture has been stolen and used for false purposes. But at the same time, we should recognize that cultural synthesis has been one of the strongest forces of human creativity. It also creates a world of greater understanding, empathy, and peace.

    This excellent Flamenco concert by the Jerusalem Orchestra East & West streamed last night is an example of how music can draw hearts together.

    The music is a synthesis of European, Spanish, Arabic, Roma, and Haketia Jewish influences. Haketia is a Judeo-Moroccan-Arabic language that was spoken in Moorish Spain and is still spoken by some to this day in Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, and Israel. The language itself is an example of the richness created by the synthesis of cultures. In this concert, we see a merging of musical hearts through culture that is a model for the world. Art makes a difference. And sharing our art in a meaningful way makes a difference.

  2. Anthony F Princiotti says

    I’ve assumed that Dvorak’s experience with being patronized as a talented Czech rustic by various high-profile figures in Austrian/German music (his Berlin publisher Fritz Simrock particularly comes to mind) sharpened his egalitarian impulses.

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