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.
(Courtesy of Naxos) - Outer cover art for \"Dvorak Symphony No. 6,\" conducted by Marin Alsop.
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.