DVOŘÁK, ANTONÍN (1841-1904)

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) lived in America for only three years (1892-1895), but left us musical masterpieces with an American flare that have endured the test of time. Jeannette M. Thurber, a New York society leader and arts patron (who had established the National Conservatory of Music of America) requested Antonín to come to America and serve as Director of the National Conservatory of Music. He accepted and arrived in New York on September 27, 1892. His wife, Anna, daughter Otilie and son Antonín accompanied him while the four youngest children were left home in Prague, Bohemia. Thurber hired Dvořák to teach, conduct, and write music in New York.
During this time period, Dvořák tried to sort out some theories about the possibilities of music in the New World. He wanted to write music that would represent America, the "New World." Many of his works from Bohemia were rooted in simple, half forgotten tunes of the peasants. Since America was a melting pot of nationalities and there was not a true folk culture to draw upon, he turned to the Negro spirituals and plantation songs to inspire him.
However, he missed his friends and younger children and was not happy in Manhattan. He complained frequently of poor health and preferred to spend his evenings with his English tutor, secretary-friend, Josef J. Kovarik whom Dvořák met while Josef was studying music in Prague. Josef's home was in Spillville, Iowa. It was Josef who persuaded Dvořák, when lonesome for Bohemia, to come to his hometown in Spillville to see the real America instead of taking his family back to Bohemia during the summer months. Dvořák accepted and gladly sent for the remainder of his family to spend the summer of 1893 together in the Czech-speaking village of Spillville.
Dvořák liked Spillville and the surrounding towns as they reminded him of his home. He had come from peasant stock, the son of a butcher from Nelahozoves, and maintained a rural retreat south of Prague in Vysoká, near Pribram.
His health improved and he became quite content and productive. His day began at 4 a.m. when he would walk through the woods to listen to the sounds around him and watch the sunrise after which he would compose for a couple of hours. By 7:00 a.m., he was on the organ bench in Saint Wenceslaus Church playing for Mass. His first professional job in Prague was as an organist. The remainder of the morning was spent at his compositional tasks.
In the afternoon he took solitary walks through the woods, fields and along the river banks or ride through the surounding countryside to nearby towns. Wherever he went, he carried a notebook to jot down notes from the natural music he heard.
While in Spillville, he touched up the orchestrations of the New World Symphony, completed a new work, the "String Quartet in F Major" and composed a chamber work in July, the "String Quartet in E-flat." The second movement of this Quartet contained echoes of a group of Algonquin Indians who performed some of their native dances for Dvořák during his Spillville visit.
While in the Midwest, he also traveled to the Czech communities in Omaha, Nebraska and St. Paul, Minnesota. At Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, he was melodically inspired and wrote ideas down on his cuff for lack of paper. Once back in New York, Dvořák composed a violin and piano sonata for his children and used part of the notes he had written on his shirt cuff in the piece. It was later published as "Sonatina in G," opus 100.
After the summer, Dvořák returned to New York and worked on the New World Symphony with Anton Seidl, the New York Philharmonic's German conductor. The piece was first performed December 15, 1893. It was reviewed as one of the great symphonies performed since the death of Beethoven and critics analyzed its American-ness. Dvořák did not use actual melodies of the Negro or Indian cultures, but adapted them to his own original constructions.
Dvořák spent the next summer in Prague and returned in the fall to complete his contract with Thurber. At the end of the season (April 1895), he went home to Bohemia. He lived nine more years until 1904 and concentrated his works on nationalistic themes.
Dvořák's greatest contribution to American music lay in the demonstration that great music was not restricted to Old World Europe but could be inspired and written in America as well.