When Dvorak Discovered America (With Help from Christopher Columbus)

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It was one of those proverbial “lightbulb moments.” As I wrote my recent post about Christopher Columbus and opera I kept referring to “the so-called ‘New World,’” mindful of the fact that when this term is simply New World, it takes on a patronizing colonial attitude that accepts that the continent of Europe was civilized while the terrains where Europeans ventured were savage. This is an attitude I have never embraced.

And yet, as I was writing about music and the “New World,” there was a nagging voice in my head saying that I was leaving something out. I filed my article to my editor at Operavore, but could not rest. And then the lightbulb flashed on: Antonin Dvorak’s great Ninth Symphony, one of the most popular in the entire repertory, was referred to by the composer as “From the New World.”

I have written before about the special way that Dvorak’s music can touch the soul, and certainly his Ninth Symphony does that. I love it on its own terms as pure music so do not necessarily make the thematic association that “From the New World” implies. But when the term converged with my writing about Columbus, I had to find out more.

As it happens, a new room devoted to Dvorak just opened at the Czech Center (a.k.a The Bohemian National Hall; 321 East 73rd St.) on October 12 (the day associated with Columbus). The permanent installation (curated with great care by Majda Kallab Whitaker) includes items associated with Dvorak’s stay in New York and America (1892-1895). To coincide with this opening is a fascinating temporary exhibition scheduled to continue through November 3 (details below) that contains some precious sheet music of parts of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 from the New York Philharmonic archives (right). The orchestra gave the world premiere of this work at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893, led by Anton Seidl.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was invited to New York in 1892 to serve as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America at 126 East 17th Street. He and his family arrived on September 27 after a nine-day sailing trip. Their first residence was at the Clarendon Hotel on Union Square. That year coincided with the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the so-called “New World” and there were great celebrations. On October 12, Dvorak watched some of the festivities from the window of his hotel and wrote:

“Just imagine row after row [of marchers], an incredible procession of people, working both in the fields of industry and the crafts, and huge numbers of gymnasts--among them members of the Czech Sokol (a sports federation)-- and crowds of people from the arts and also many nationalities and colors...I haven’t got the words to describe it all.”

During the summer, Dvorak had been working on a cantata called “The American Flag,” but the text arrived too late for him to present it in America. He was also working on a Te Deum (Op. 103, 1892), which he would call “The Columbian Te Deum” based on his powerful first contact with Columbus Day in New York. In his first public appearance in New York, on October 21, he conducted the world premiere of this work at Carnegie Hall, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and a 300-strong chorus. Here is the opening section. The Te Deum will be performed at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. on October 28.

Dvorak and his family moved to a house at 327 East 17th Street. In a letter, he wrote “Mr. Steinway sent a piano immediately, and a fine one. And free of charge. So we have a nice piece of furniture in the sitting room.” The mantelpiece from this house survived the building’s shameful demolition 20 years ago. The house was declared a landmark in 1990 but this was overturned by the City Council in 1991, despite vigorous protests by music lovers and the Czech community.

One of Dvorak’s best students was Harry T. Burleigh, an African-American. According to two Dvorak experts, Maestro Maurice Peress (author of Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African-American Roots) and Prof. Michael Beckerman (Chair of Music at NYU and author of New Worlds of Dvorak: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life), Burleigh introduced Dvorak to spirituals and other music of African-Americans. These scholars think that the English horn solo in the Largo from the second movement of the Ninth Symphony evokes the voice of Burleigh. This music is on display at the special exhibition. Burleigh was hired by the Philharmonic as one of the copyists of the score.

When the New York City Council was debating whether to save the building, Barbara Haws, archivist of the Philharmonic since 1984, brought pages from the symphony to attest to Dvorak’s importance. Baritone William Warfield addressed the Council by singing “Going Home,” the song Peress thinks is the source material for the Largo, after telling the Council that, when he arrived in New York from the American South, he went to the Dvorak house on East 17th Street “to honor the person who gave a black man a chance.”

Dvorak traveled to the American Midwest in 1893 and spent time in a community in Iowa that had many Czech speakers. En route, and on his return to New York, Dvorak stopped in Chicago, which was having its famous Columbian Exhibition, inspired by Columbus but a very American event full of positive thinking and swaggering optimism about the future. This stimulated Dvorak, from a small European country that was part of the Hapsburg Empire, to think in more lofty and Utopian terms. All of this informs the Ninth Symphony.

Back in New York, during rehearsals for the symphony, Dvorak took the title page of the score and wrote “from the New World.” The first two words unlock a secret: yes, this is from America (the so-called “New World” of Columbus) but Dvorak was reporting from a new world of optimism and possibilities, one in which African-Americans and their music were valued contributors to this society. It took a long time for their importance to be acknowledged, but Dvorak’s vision of a New World still speaks to people today.

When the New York Philharmonic made its historic visit to Pyongyang, North Korea in 2008, conductor Lorin Maazel selected this work as the one that could speak across cultures and ideologies to every person who yearns to breathe free. Here is that performance:

To see the special exhibition in the Dvorak Room: Visiting hours are from 2 to 5 pm on Oct. 20, Oct. 25, Oct. 27, Nov. 1, Nov. 3, and from 1 - 3 PM on Saturday, Oct. 22. On must prearrange a visit by e-mail