Friday, December 9, 2011

Antonín Dvořák at La Fenice - New World Symphony

Excerpt - Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World" - 3. Scherzo

(Venice, Italy) The Czech composer Antonín Leopold Dvořák arrived in America in 1892 and gave classical music a jolt. Please listen to the above clip if you have not already done so.

Convinced by the philanthropist, Jeanette Thurber, to head her newly-created National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City, Dvořák's task was to help Thurber realize her vision of creating an American school of classical music composition. Dvořák, already hugely successful in Europe, was hired to create the national music of the United States of America itself because it was not doing it organically. 

Thurber's dream was that her conservatory would eventually become a federally funded national institution with branches throughout the United States, its headquarters based in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, her dream did not come true, but it certainly started out on the right path, with Dvořák quickly building a strong foundation.

La Fenice (The Phoenix)
Unfortunately, Dvořák and his wife left America before the spring 1895 term at the conservatory was finished, but not before he had inspired the New World with a composition or two. According to Wikipedia, apparently Jeanette Thurber had not paid him his salary, and he was homesick for the Old World, where he was greatly appreciated. During his short time in the United States, Dvořák knocked off not only From the New World aka Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, but also his last solo concerto, Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (among other works), both of which we heard last night, December 8, 2011, at La Fenice, Venice's own opera house. Conducted by Alberto Veronesi, the Orchestra Filarmonica della Fenice produced a deeply moving concert, starring the dynamic Russian cellist, Nina Kotova. 

Whether or not it is true that Jeanette Thurber did not pay his salary, according to his own letters, Dvořák was mightily impressed with America when he first arrived, not only with the way he was treated by Jeanette Thurber, but also with her generosity and willingness to expose both rich and poor to the world of music. His contract was for a substantial amount of money, and from what I've read about the man, I seriously doubt that he would have gotten on the boat without a decent advance. We can imagine that there is much more to the story -- especially since Thurber herself was the daughter of an immigrant violinist from Copenhagen who married a millionaire. 

Dvořák's daunting task was to help the United States create their own national music. (I have struggled to format the following letter from Dvořák to friends in Prague to make it more readable, but am afraid you will have to decipher it yourselves.) Here is an example of one jewel of a sentence you will find if you take the time to read: "Imagine how the Americans work in the interests of art and for the people!"


Parker House, Boston (Hotel)

27. XL 1892. 

Dear Sir, Esteemed Madam, 

I have been wanting to write to you for a long time but have 
always put it off, waiting for a more suitable moment when I could 
tell you something of particular interest about America and 
especially about the musical conditions here. There is so much 
to tell and all so new and interesting that I cannot put it all down 
on paper and so I shall limit myself to the most important things. 

The first and chief thing is that, thanks be to God, we are 
all well and liking it here very much. And why shouldn't we 
when it is so lovely and free here and one can live so much more 
peacefully and that is what I need. I do not worry about any 
thing and do my duty and it is all right. There are things here 
which one must admire and others which I would rather not see, 
but what can you do, everywhere there is something-in general, 
however, it is altogether different here, and, if America goes 
on like this, she will surpass all the others. 

Just imagine how the Americans work in the interests of 
art and for the people! So, for instance, yesterday I came to 
Boston to conduct my obligatory concert (every thing connected 
with it being arranged by the highly esteemed President of our 
Conservatory, the tireless Mrs. Jeanette M.Thurber) at which the 
Requiem will be given with several hundred performers. The 
concert on December 1st will be for only the wealthy and the 
intelligentzia, but the preceding day my work will also be per 
formed for poor workers who earn 1 8 dollars a week, the purpose 
being to give the poor and uneducated people the opportunity 
to hear the musical works of all times and all nations'! 
That's something, isn't it? I am looking forward to it like a child. 

Today, Sunday, I have a rehearsal at three o'clock in the 
afternoon and wonder how it will come off. The orchestra here, 
which I heard in Brooklyn, is excellent, 100 musicians, mostly 
German as is also the conductor. His name is Nikisch and he 
comes from somewhere in Hungary. The orchestra was founded 
by a local millionaire, Colonel Higginson, who gave a big 
speech at my first concert (a thing unheard of here), spoke of 
my coming to America and the purpose to be served by my stay 
here. The Americans expect great things of me and the main 
thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and 
kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a 
national music. If the small Czech nation can have such musi 
cians, they say, why could not they, too, when their country 
and people is so immense. 

Forgive me for lacking a little in modesty, but I am only 
telling you what the American papers are constantly writing. 
It is certainly both a great and splendid task for me and I hope 
that with God's help I shall accomplish it. There is more than 
enough material here and plenty of talent. I have pupils from as 
far away as San Francisco. They are mostly poor people, but 
at our Institute teaching is free of charge, anybody who is really 
talented pays no fees ! I have only 8 pupils, but some of them 
very promising. 

And then not less so are the entries for the competition 
for prizes offered by Mrs. Thurber. 1000 dollars for an opera, 
1000 for an oratory, 1000 for a libretto, 500 for a symphony, 
and, for a cantata, a piano or a violin concerto, 300 dollars each. 

A great deal of music has come in from all over America and 
I must go through it all. It does not take much work. I look at 
the first page and can tell straight away whether it is the work 
of a dilettante or an artist. 

As regards operas, they are very poor and I don't know 
whether any will be awarded a prize. Besides myself there are 
other gentlemen on the jury for each kind of composition five 
of us. The other kinds of composition such as symphonies, 
concertos, suites, serenades etc. interest me very much. The 
composers are all much the same as at home brought up in the 
German School, but here and there another spirit, other thoughts? 
another colouring flashes forth, in short, something 
Indian(something a la BretHarte). I am very curious how things will 

As regards my own work, this is my programme: On 
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 9-11, I have compo 
sition ; twice a week orchestra practice from 4-6 and the rest of 
my time is my own. You see that it is not a great deal and Mrs. 
Thurber is very "considerate" as she wrote to me in Europe that 
she would be. 

She looks after the administrative side herself has a secretary 
also a founding member of the co-operative (very wealthy), a 
Mr. Stanton, an intimate friend of Mr. Cleveland, whereas Mrs. 
Thurber is a Republican-, but in matters of art they get on very 
well together and work for the good of our young and not yet 
fully developed institute. And so it is all right. The second 
secretary is Mrs MacDowel and she is mainly in charge of the 

And now something about our domestic affairs. We live in 
17th street East, 327 (only 4 mins. from the school) and are 
very satisfied with the flat. Mr. Steinway sent me a piano imme- 
diately-a lovely one and, of course, free of charge, so that we 
have one nice piece of furniture in our sitting-room. Besides 
this we have 3 others rooms and a small room (furnished) and 
pay 80 dollars a month. A lot for us but the normal price here. 

We have breakfast and supper at home and go to a board 
ing-house for dinner. 

I must stop. My kind regards to yourself and your wife, 
I remain, Gratefully Yours, 

Antonin Dvorak. 

My wife, who is with me, asks to be remembered to you.
Dvorak to Mr.and Mrs Hldvka in Prague.
Jeanette Thurber
Apparently Dvořák, the son of a butcher, found his inspiration for the new national classical music of the United States of America in Native American and African American music, which Carnegie Hall and New York City embraced, but which the critics in Boston most definitely did not. (There is a great joke about the people who came over on the Mayflower here in Europe, which I will tell you in the future:)

From Humanities, November/December 2003, Volume 24/Number 6; Scott Eithier's excellent write-up of Dvorák in America by Joseph Horowitz: 

The New York press was filled with articles about his arrival. Americans were impressed that Dvorák, the son of a Bohemian butcher, had worked his way up--with a little assistance from Johannes Brahms--to become one of Europe’s most respected composers. Journalist Henry Edward Krehbiel, who would become one of Dvorák’s most loyal supporters in the press, wrote in Century magazine that Dvorák’s life was “a story of manifest destiny, of signal triumph over obstacle and discouraging environment. To rehearse it stimulates hope, reanimates ambition, and helps keep alive popular belief in the reality of that precious attribute called genius.”

Just as America was taken by Dvorák, Dvorák was equally fascinated by America. In particular, he was captivated by the music and culture of African Americans and American Indians. “I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants,” he writes in Music in America. “I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans.”

Harry Burleigh
One of Dvorák’s students at the National Conservatory was the young African American singer and composer Harry Burleigh. Burleigh sang for Dvorák many of the spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his grandfather.

Dvorák’s interest in American Indian culture began in Europe, when he read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, in Czech translation. During his first year in New York he accompanied Jeanette Thurber to a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Dvorák was fascinated by Buffalo Bill Cody, the sharpshooter Annie Oakley, and the Indians in war bonnets who reenacted Custer’s Last Stand and battles between settlers and Native Americans.

...When the symphony premiered on December 16, 1893 at Carnegie Hall with Anton Seidl and the New York Philharmonic, audiences and critics received the work warmly. When the work was premiered in Boston two weeks later, however, the reception could not have been more different. The critics and composers of the Boston establishment were in an uproar.

“Such Negro melodies as I have heard I should be sorry to see become the basis of an American school of composition,” composer George Chadwick wrote in the Boston Herald.

Amy Beach, another Boston composer, applauded the attempt to create a national music, but felt that African American melodies were not “fully typical” of the country. “The African population of the United States is far too small for its songs to be considered ‘American,’” she wrote.

Well, we can imagine how well THAT went over with the folks up in Massachusetts -- a fortune was spent to hire the most important composer in Europe at the time -- a Czech and son of a butcher -- who comes to America and tells the white folks that the best music they've got was created by native American Indians and imported African slaves! And THEN he creates a brilliant symphony called From the New World based on that music! 

Let's listen to another excerpt from From the New World. I am playing them out of order for effect; this is the Largo, which actually comes before the Scherzo that you listened to there at the top of the post. The piece is a little long, so listen to as much as you like -- I am sure most of you will recognize the tune.

I will leave you with a little anecdote from one of  Dvořák's students:
...Another time he surprised us with the question: who 
of us knows what Mozart is? The mysterious question 
caused much cudgelling of brains and many views were 
put forward about Mozart's significance. They were, 
however, only the usual commonplace phrases such as: 
Mozart is a classic-
a composer of opera 
of symphonies 
Haydn's successor 
Beethoven's antipode 
a precursor of Romanticism 
and similar more or less senseless sentences. To 
all the answers the Master shook his head and the 
enigma remained unsolved. 
"Now that just shows how little sense and feeling you 
have for music. Do you mean to say that not one of 
you can guess?!" he asked, raising his voice. 
Nobody replied. ...
Dvorak's temperament boiled over: 
Seizing the nearest pupil by the shoulder, he dragged 
him to the window and here pointing with one hand to 
the sky and with the other shaking the pupil by the 
sleeve asked him once more: 
"Now do you know? Do you see it?" 

The pupil was in obvious embarrassment: 
now throwing an inquiring look at the Master, 
now gazing at the sky, he finally stuttered: 

"Excuse me, sir, I don't see anything." 

"What? You don't see the sun?" 

"I see it!" 

"Why then don't you say what Mozart is ?" 

And turning away from the window-
seriously, loftily and with tremendous 
enthusiasm, Dvorak pronounced this significant 

"Well, remember: Mozart is sunshine!" 
From the article.' "From Dvorak's School" by Josef Michl
Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. Dvořák, already hugely successful in Europe, was hired to create the national music of the United States of America itself because it was not doing it organically.

  2. "Mozart is sunshine." Antonín Leopold Dvořák