It’s not the first time Antonin Dvorak has come to America. On Thursday, the Czech composer’s 170th birthday, the Embassy of the Czech Republic is launching a two-month “Mutual Inspirations Festival” of performances, films, and other events in Washington relating to his work. Dvorak himself first came to this country in 1892, to head the National Conservatory in New York and help Americans establish their own national concert music. But 119 years later, we’re still waiting.
“Mutual Inspirations” well describes Dvorak’s musical relationship to America, which bore considerable fruit on both sides. The festival touches many of the bases of Dvorak’s three-year American sojourn, from the “Te Deum,” written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, to the ninth and final symphony, which will be performed three times (once as an organ transcription) in September and October, and whose manuscript is coming from Prague for a viewing at the Library of Congress. Titled “From the New World,” the symphony represents Dvorak’s attempt to establish “American music” using “folk” themes from African American and Native American traditions. It's his serious, even visionary, focus on African American composers that has singled out Dvorak for recent attention.
At the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop has been undertaking a multi-season cycle of Dvorak’s symphonies (numbers 6, 7, 8 and 9 have been released on CD, and the cello concerto is featured on the orchestra’s program Sept. 24 at Strathmore). Meanwhile Ivan Fischer, the former principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, brought out a couple of new Dvorak recordings made with his own Budapest Festival Orchestra, including the Seventh Symphony — darker and more intense than the spacious Ninth — and the American Suite, one of the pieces Dvorak wrote while he was in this country, sunny and open.
But if Dvorak is emerging front and center with American orchestras, it’s in no small part because of Joseph Horowitz, the co-founder and artistic director of Post-Classical Ensemble in Washington. Horowitz has spearheaded and developed a wide range of Dvorak-related projects over the past couple of decades, from the 2004 book for young readers “ Dvorak in America ” to Dvorak-themed projects and festivals with orchestras all the way up to the New York Philharmonic. Currently, he’s involved with a consortium of four orchestras that were awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities for “Music Unwound,” whose main focus will be a project called “Dvorak and America” encompassing concerts, multimedia events and classroom activities.
Dvorak is an ideal democratizing figure to invoke in contrast with the elitist stereotypes of classical music. The son of a butcher, born in rural Bohemia, he was seen as a representative of a lesser race in his own day by the German and Austro-Hungarian elite. Paradoxically, his Czech identity helped him rise to fame — a set of “Slavonic Dances” in 1878 helped put him on the map. But that Czech identity also led to the premiere of his Sixth Symphony being postponed; there was concern about how the Viennese might react to such elevation of a Czech composer. So Dvorak knew what it felt like to be an underdog, even though he’s also a rare composer whose work was popular throughout his lifetime, and has remained so to the present day.
Dvorak is portrayed as having championed the underdog when he got to the United States. He didn’t have to look far to find African American musical traditions, since one-quarter of the 600 students at the National Conservatory were black; but he was still one of the first European composers to take those traditions seriously.
He educated his ear in part through a student named Harry T. Burleigh, who was so encouraged by Dvorak’s interest in Negro spirituals that he went on to write dozens of arrangements of these songs. (“Musical Inspirations” includes a symposium on Dvorak’s African American sources on Oct. 1, including a lecture-recital at which the tenor Reginald Bouknight will sing some of Burleigh’s arrangements.)
“From the New World” was conceived around faux “Indian” themes, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” and informed by music Dvorak heard at the Kickapoo Medicine Show, an “Indian” traveling outfit designed to market a quack medical remedy. But its most famous theme is the second-movement melody, which Burleigh adapted as a spiritual after Dvorak wrote it, now widely known as “Goin’ Home.”
These “folk” themes didn’t win any more favor in some quarters than Dvorak’s use of “Slavonic” themes had in Vienna. While the New York critics embraced “From the New World” at its 1893 Carnegie Hall world premiere, many critics in Boston, where the piece was performed two weeks later, reacted with horror at such barbarous and uncultivated music being allowed into classical music’s sacred halls.
Dvorak was prescient: African American music, sometimes tempered with an Eastern European touch, indeed came to form the basis of the national music of the United States. That music, though, turned out to be jazz and Broadway, rather than the classical concert music Dvorak had in mind. Dvorak, indeed, had some influence on the development of these kinds of music, as well as of American concert music. His students at the conservatory included Harry Rowe Shelley, a teacher of Charles Ives; Rubin Goldmark, who taught both Aaron Copland and George Gershwin; and Will Marion Cook, the conductor and composer who was a friend and mentor of Duke Ellington.
Indeed, Dvorak’s own music has some of the popular traits associated with Tin Pan Alley, including a marked melodic gift and an easy accessibility. There was nothing facile about Dvorak — rather than resting on his laurels or relying on formulas, he kept developing and changing his style throughout his career. But the pieces he wrote in America — including the op. 101 piano “Humoresques,” tinged with a ragtime flavor — is particularly melodious and straightforward; Dvorak’s response, one can infer, to his charge to create a musical reflection of the American character.
The naivete of Dvorak’s concept of “America” rankled with some American musicians; and it’s been often pointed out that both the “American-ness” of the Ninth Symphony and the “Slav” qualities of Dvorak’s earlier work smack of the same brand of superficial local color that informs, say, department-store windows. But like many outside observers, he was able to see something that many locals were overlooking. His vision for American music remains as socially appealing today as his music is attractive. In short, he’s just the kind of poster child that classical music still wants.
The Mutual Inspirations Festival begins in Washington on Sept. 11 with a concert by three singers, “Tre Mezzi,” dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attacks, and continues with more than 20 events through Oct. 28, when it concludes with a performance of Dvorak’s “Te Deum” and Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass” at the Washington National Cathedral. For a complete schedule, go to www.mutualinspirations.org.