When Dvorak Discovered America (With Help from Christopher Columbus)

Thursday, October 20, 2011 - 05:48 PM

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


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Comments [9]

Les from Miami, Florida

I recall one of the "Music at First Hearing" programs during which Martin Bookspan, after hearing the Scherzo from the Dvorak d minor Symphony, said he felt Dvorak was the most underrated composer of the 19th Century. I've really never heard a piece of his I didn't like. But if you read Leonard Bernstein's analysis of the "New World Symphony" in "The Infinite Variety of Music" (Simon & Schuster),he debunks the idea of it being a new American symphony at all, but duly praises it for being "...a New World symphony from the Old World, full of Old World Tradition." (page 169) and he states ---along with Maestro Peress in his post --- that the words set to the Largo movement were penned years after the symphony was written.

Oct. 08 2012 10:13 AM
Michael Meltzer

I've never understood why people carry that particular "principle" to the absurd extremes that they do. Great art is great art. Very few Jewish choral singers, including yours truly, will pass up an opportunity to sing the Bach B-minor Mass or the Mozart Requiem. That does not make us Christian converts.
If you are an actor, you don't have to believe in ghosts to play Scrooge or be a communist to play the part of Stalin. If you have any brains, you can take in the moment, and walk away when it's over.

Oct. 24 2011 03:20 AM
Fred Plotkin

Dear Readers, Thanks for the excellent, informative comments. Michael: do you think that "separation of church and state" would prevent performance of a Te Deum nowadays? I think not, given that there is an annual National Prayer Breakfast that the sitting president never misses.

Oct. 23 2011 11:55 PM
Karen Harkenrider from Brooklyn

St. George's Choral Society is doing an all-Dvorak program on Sunday, Nov. 20th at 3pm at Church of the Incarnation, Madison Avenue at 35th Street. Tami Petty is one of the soloists and the program includes the "Te Deum", "Songs of Nature," and the "Stabat Mater." For tickets: www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org.

Oct. 23 2011 08:43 AM
Michael Meltzer

There's a little more history about the Te Deum and "The American Flag."
Dvorak was to be feted in Washington D.C. and was commissioned to write a work to be performed before a joint session of Congess with attendant other dignitaries and lots of hoopla.
In Europe, for such an affair of state, the traditional work to offer is a Te Deum. That's what he wrote, a masterpiece at that. When he submitted it, imagine his amazement when it was refused, because ot the American "separation of church and state."
Dvorak was said to have been furious, and dashed off "The American Flag" in a couple of weeks. That was performed instead.
"The American Flag" is considered to be perhaps the weakest of all his published works, it did not enjoy lasting popularity and went out of print. In 1976, the year of the American bicentennial, there was a rush to publication of "patriotic" works for the many ceremonies and celebrations that year.
The publisher of the cantata, G. Schirmer. discovered the vocal/choral score in its archive and re-issued it with lots of advertising. From 1973 to 1978 I had a retail choral music outlet on W. 57th Street, I had quite a few orders for it in quantities, sight unseen. G.Schirmer noted on the title page, "Orchestral materials for performance available on rental from the publisher."
When the orders fot the orchestral materials inevitably came back to the G. Schirmer rental department, they found that they had actually thrown them out, years ago. The work had been considered an absolute bomb and had generated no interest.
Schirmer then had to scramble and pay an arranger to make up an orchestration from the piano reduction in the vocal score. I don't know the name of that hero.
After 1976, the cantata (about the length of a Bach cantata) went back into oblivion.

Oct. 22 2011 07:40 PM
meche from MIMA

When I first moved to NYC I lived on 17th St. right next to Dvorak's house. A young man with a motorcycle lived there and invited me in to see it because I told him I was such a fan of the composer. I was among those who were outraged by the house's demolition. I feel strongly about preserving those things of value from our past, and that includes some memorable opera productions that seem to be carelessly and prematurely retired.

Oct. 22 2011 01:09 AM
Fred Plotkin from the New World

Dear MAK, Thanks for your kind comments. It is some consolation that the location of the Dvorak House is now a place where persons with AIDS receive care. But it is a shame in our society (and especially certain cities such as New York and Atlanta) that we seem so willing to knock down reminders of who we are and what makes us great in the interest of making money (not in the case of the Mapplethorpe Center, of course, but in most cases). I was in the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square the other day and still get angry that the historic and vibrant Morosco, Helen Hayes and Roxy Theaters were destroyed to build this bunker of a hotel that is an ugly monstrosity. Buildings, and what they have housed, are culture as much as an opera or a book.

Oct. 21 2011 01:40 PM

Dear Fred, I always look forward to what I am going to learn from your "lightbulb moments" - be it a look into the backstage workings of a production- to your "So You Think You Can Sing Opera in Italian at the Met" reality blog - to your encyclopedic details that help me better understand specific composers, singers and pieces.

It is very interesting to read about Dvorak's NYC presence and its influence on the creation of the 9th Symphony... I am, also, always saddened by the destruction of beautiful or historially significant architecture. It is a consolation, however, that Dvorak's 17th St. address now serves as the Robert Mapplethorpe Residential Treatment Facility to care for people with AIDS. Dvorak's presence and memory are a vestige of humanity which lives on, in a different way, at this address, His true memorial is alive in the performance of his work. Thank you again for your thoughtful and interesting writing!

Oct. 21 2011 12:59 PM
Maurice Peress from NYC

Thank you for the article about the new Dvorak Room. One correction, The Largo theme is completely original with Dvorak. It was only 27 odd years later that three of Dvorak's American pupils set the tune and Dvorak's unique harmonies with "Negro Spiritual" lyrics, "Goin' Home" being the one that caught on. Thanks again, Maurice Peress

Oct. 21 2011 11:16 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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