dvorak 1894
Antonin Dvorak, an 1894 engraving: ‘In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.’

Dvorak In America
‘The future American school will be based upon the music of the Negro’

[Ed. Note: September 8 marked the 169th birthday of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. Though many celebrations are scheduled for next year to coincide with the composer’s 170th birthday, we thought the occasion of an Imani Winds cover a splendid opportunity to honor the adventurous work Dvorak created during his three years in America, when he embraced the music of black and Native Americans in a pioneering way in the classical realm, much as Imani Winds has done in its time by plumbing its members’ African-American and Latin American heritages in expanding the wind quintet repertoire. So happy 169th, Antonin! A special treat for our readers: a five-part YouTube video of the New York Philharmonic performing Dvorak’s masterpiece, Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.”]

Antonin Dvorak spent the better part of three years in America (1892-95) as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. It was Dvorak's nationalist credentials that had attracted Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, founder of the conservatory, to select him as their new director, for at the top of her agenda was the establishment of an American school of composers. Dvorak's folk-inspired music was closely identified with the national struggle to free Bohemia and Moravia from the domination, cultural as well as political, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a role he inherited from the father of "Czechish" music, Bedrich Smetana. Mrs. Thurber offered incentives—a rather large annual fee, half paid in advance, guest-conducting appearances and commissions for new works. But Dvorak's strongly held humanist convictions made America particularly attractive. Its welcome call, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," had already beckoned tens of thousands of his Czech-speaking countrymen to emigrate to the United States. He himself loved to travel; between the autumn of 1884 and the spring of 1891 he crisscrossed the English Channel nine times to direct concerts of his music in London, Birmingham and other major cities, which explains his proficiency in English. And, here was an opportunity to introduce his entire family, his wife and six children, to the excitements of America.

The New York Philharmonic, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 ‘The New World,’ Part 1

Dvorak's influence on American music and musicians is evidenced by the widespread news coverage given on both sides of the Atlantic to his novel observations and "radical" statements that "the future American school will be based upon the music of the Negro," and by the distinguished and ongoing teacher-student legacy he initiated—among his dozen or so composition students at the conservatory were two who would become the teachers of Ellington, Copland and Gershwin. Correspondingly, the impact of the New World on Dvorak was enormous. He produced a flurry of "American" works, among them four that remain his best known and loved: the Symphony in E minor ("From the New World"), the most famous of the "Humoresque"s, the String Quartet in F, and the Cello Concerto. Be it money, wanderlust, or politics—whatever the combination of causes that drew Dvorak to American shores-one of the most significant cultural exchanges in American history was about to begin when Dvorak, his wife, Anna, and their two oldest children (the others would join in the spring), boarded the SS Saale in Bremen on September 17, 1892, and, after nine stormy days, debarked onto a pier in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Enter Harry T. Burleigh

‘Dvorak used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper ... I gave him what I knew of Negro songs—no one called them spirituals then—and he wrote some of my tunes (my people's music) into the New World Symphony.’

Dvorak saw in Harry T. Burleigh, his African American assistant at the conservatory, a reflection of himself as a student and befriended the youth: "If in my own career I have achieved a measure of success and reward, it is to some extent due to the fact that I was the son of poor parents and was reared in an atmosphere of struggle and endeavor."

When Burleigh had first arrived in New York, he joined the men and boys choir at the Free African Church of St. Philip's, New York City's first African American congregation of Protestant Episcopalians which traces its origin to 1809, when attendance at Wall Street's Trinity Church's Sunday afternoon African service had become so large, and the African American parishioners so dissatisfied with having to worship separately, that they reached a decision to set up their own congregation. St. Philip's was then located in the "tenderloin district" at 161 West 25th Street, less than a mile from Dvorak's house on East 17th Street. Burleigh became part of the large African American community that had established itself around Saint Philip's, many of them in apartment houses built and managed by the church.

The New York Philharmonic, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 ‘The New World,’ Part 2

There were at least two other musicians from St. Philip's enrolled at the National Conservatory: Edward B. Kinney, the church's organist and choirmaster, who was a member of Dvorak's composition class; and Charles Bolin, who studied piano, perhaps organ as well. They were among the first of what, under Dvorak's prodding, would soon become well over one hundred fifty African Americans among the 600-plus students enrolled at the conservatory. This explains why the St. Philip's men and boys choir performed under Dvorak (and Kinney) at a historic concert held in Madison Square Garden in 1894 that featured the conservatory's African American students. Eighteen years later the St. Philip's men and boys choir participated in another historic concert, James Reese Europe's Clef Club Concert at Carnegie Hall, this time under the direction of their new organist and choirmaster Charles Bohlen. Bolin had taken a Germanic spelling for his name.

national conservatory
The National Conservatory of Music of America, East 17th Street, 1905. (Photo: Museum of the City of New York, The Byron Collection)

Dvorak led the conservatory orchestra, which met twice a week. Burleigh served as the orchestra librarian and copyist, and filled in on double bass and tympani. The conductor's lot is a lonely one. Among the few orchestral musicians they get to talk with off the podium, and the one they depend upon for a myriad of editorial details and drudge jobs, is their librarian. Dvorak and Burleigh apparently worked out well together. During his second year at the conservatory, Dvorak wrote to his family back in Prague that his son Otakar, age nine, "sat on Burleigh's lap during the orchestra's rehearsals and played the tympani." Victor Herbert, a lifelong friend of Burleigh's, described the Dvorak-Burleigh relationship in a letter sent in 1922 to Carl Engel, chief of the music division of the Library of Congress: "Dr. Dvorak was most kind and unaffected and took great interest in his pupils, one of which, Harry Burleigh, had the privilege of giving the Dr. some of the thematic material for his Symphony. ... I have seen this denied—but it is true."

burleigh spiritualsBurleigh had learned many of the old plantation songs from the singing of his blind maternal grandfather, Hamilton Waters, who in 1832 bought his freedom from slavery on a Maryland plantation. Waters became the town crier and lamplighter for Erie, Pennsylvania, and as a young boy Burleigh helped guide him along his route. The family was Episcopalian and young Harry sang in the men and boys choir. Burleigh also "remembered his Mother's singing after chores and how he and his [step] father and grandfather all harmonized while helping her." At various times in his long life—he died in 1949 at age 81—Burleigh described his student days with Dvorak. Taken together, Burleigh's writings provide insight into Dvorak's ongoing Negro music education while he was composing what would become the Symphony "From the New World": "Dvorak used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper ... I gave him what I knew of Negro songs—no one called them spirituals then—and he wrote some of my tunes (my people's music) into the New World Symphony."

Dvorak began working on various "American" themes in mid-December 1892, filling eleven pages of a sketchbook. Burleigh wrote: "Part of this old 'spiritual' ['Swing Low Sweet Chariot'] will be found in the second theme of the first movement ... given out by the flute. Dvorak saturated himself with the spirit of these old tunes and then invented his own themes. There is a subsidiary theme in G minor in the first movement with a flatted seventh [a characteristic passed on to jazz, known as a ‘blue note’] and I feel sure the composer caught this peculiarity of most of the slave songs from some that I sang to him; for he used to stop me and ask if that was the way the slaves sang."

In January 1893, Dvorak began a continuous sketch for the "New World" Symphony. Wrote Burleigh, "When Dvorak heard me sing 'Go Down Moses,' he said, 'Burleigh, that is as great as a Beethoven theme.'" This, for Dvorak, was the ultimate compliment. He made his students compose dozens of themes before accepting one as appropriate for "development." He would then have them wrap the theme around the skeleton of an existing Beethoven sonata, imitating, measure by measure, the modulations and key relationships.

9th symphony
The first page of Antonin Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, ‘The New World’

Dvorak began working on the full score in mid-February 1893. "Dvorak of course used 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' note for note,"  continued Burleigh. "It was not an accident. He did it quite consciously ... He tried to combine Negro and Indian themes. The Largo movement he wrote after he had read the famine scene in Longfellow's 'Hiawatha.' It had a great effect on him and he wanted to interpret it musically." [That Burleigh's grandmother was part Native American may help to explain why Dvorak often equated or confused Indian with African American music.]

Within one week, May 21-28, 1893, a spate of articles about Dvorak's views on Negro music and the completion of his new symphony appeared in the New York Herald and, by means of the newspaper's new "exclusive" Atlantic Cable, its sister paper, the English-language Paris Herald.

"In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him." —Antonin Dvorak

The New York Philharmonic, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 ‘The New World,’ Part 3

Dvorak's famous announcement is often foreshortened, omitting perhaps his most important appraisal, "The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him," an acute observation that only a few years later would find a parallel in "the weird and intoxicating effect" on listeners of the Scott Joplin rags, as noted by the composer himself.

Narratives about the infectious peculiarities of African-rooted music appear throughout American history. Even the earliest settlers of the New World fell under its spell. The distinguished German-born musicology professor Kurt Sachs studied the origins of the dances found in 17th-century European classical suites, among them the allemande, courante, and gigue. Sachs, who took great satisfaction in upending assumptions, discovered that the courtly dances known as the sarabande and the chaconne could be traced back to Africa via 16th-century dances of New Spain and the Caribbean. According to Sachs, the "lewd lascivious" Creole/African zarabanda, a dance so beguiling it was outlawed by the church, metamorphosed over time into the slow, stately sarabande. But "even more than the sarabanda," the African-derived chacona, also known as the chacona mulata, was sensuous and wild, the "most passionate and unbridled of all dances."

In time, America became entranced with the tunes and stories of Negro minstrelsy; "Oh them Golden Slippers" and "Old Black Joe" were huge popular hits. Concertgoers came to enjoy spirituals and slave songs as presented in formal settings by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their many imitators. Nevertheless, it would take the honest enthusiasms of a world-class Czech composer to thrust "Negro" music into the center of the serious (read "European,") music establishment.

dvorak life
‘Pan [father] Antonin Dvorak, our greatest friend from far across the sea.’

The oft-quoted New York Herald interview that begins, "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music," came out on Sunday, May 21, traveled under the Atlantic at the speed of light and made the front page of the Paris Herald the following morning. Paris Herald stringers were quickly dispatched to Vienna and Berlin to interview famous musicians about Dvorak's "curious" theory.

Among those interviewed were: Joseph Joachim, a distinguished violinist and pedagogue, who may have already been exposed to American Negro music through his student, Will Marion Cook—soon to be Dvorak's student at the conservatory; Anton Rubenstein, the pianist, composer, and founder of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory; and Anton Bruckner, the Viennese composer and organist. So strong was the notion of German musical authority that French musicians of note, such as Camille Saint-Saëns, conveniently nearby in Paris, were not consulted.

Their reactions to Dvorak's theory appeared on the front page of the Paris Herald on three consecutive days, and, thanks to undersea cable, in the New York Herald in a single condensed article on Sunday, May 28th, on page 20. What would normally take several days by steamship, was being accomplished in hours. But there was more. Elsewhere in the New York Herald Sunday's, May 28th, edition, on page 31, Dvorak exploded the time bomb that had been ticking all week:

"ANTONIN DVORAK ON NEGRO MELODIES/THE BOHEMIAN COMPOSER EMPLOYS THEIR THEME AND SENTIMENTS IN A NEW SYMPHONY. Dr. Dvorak's explicit announcement that his newly completed symphony reflects the Negro melodies, upon which ... the coming American school must be based ... will be a surprise to the world."

The editorial page also took notice of Dvorak's Negro-melody idea, describing it as a "welcome utterance." With two bold strokes Dvorak empowered American musicians of all stripes, by setting a "great and noble" example, meanwhile apprising the general public about something they already suspected but were perhaps afraid to acknowledge.

‘A Cold Water Douche’
Reaction To Dvorak’s ‘Negro Melody Idea’

Dvorak's notions about the future of America's music created no small amount of controversy, catching the American music establishment off guard. Among the naysayers were the American composers Edward MacDowell and John Knowles Paine. MacDowell was particularly bitter: "We have here in America been offered a pattern for an American national music costume by the Bohemian Dvorak ... though what Negro melodies have to do with Americanism in art still remains a mystery." On the other hand, Dvorak's ideas provided just the imprimatur that was needed by composers like Arthur Farwell, who were especially interested in American Indian music. When Farwell established his own, composer governed, Wa Wan Press in 1902, his declared intention was to "launch a progressive movement for American music, including a definite acceptance of Dvorak's challenge to go after our own folk music."

Black musicians were ecstatic. The Freeman article recalled Dvorak's statements as "a triumph for the sons and daughters of slavery and a victory for Negro race achievements," referring to him as "Pan [father] Antonin Dvorak, our greatest friend from far across the sea." According to the late William Warfield, the distinguished bass-baritone and former president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, this bond with Dvorak "lives on in black music circles."

The New York Philharmonic, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 ‘The New World,’ Part 4

The original interviews with "Eminent Musicians from Berlin and Vienna" (Joachim, Rubenstein, and an American composer, Arthur Bird) about Dvorak's "Negro Melody Idea" that had been summarized in the New York Herald were thoughtful, respectfully curious, and insightful:

Josef Joachim: "It may be a very good idea to try and merge the American Negro melodies into an ideal form, and that these melodies would then give the tint to the National American Music."

Anton Rubenstein: "If there is a great literature of these Negro melodies, Dr. Dvorak's idea is possible ... Ah, so they are going to allow Negros free musical education. That is very interesting ... they may develop a new melody ... It is refreshing of course ... in twenty five years or fifty years we shall perhaps see whether the Negros can develop their musical talent and found a new musical style."

Arthur Bird: "I wonder whether the Negro melodies ... simple, sad, musical, [would] lose from being instrumented."

The comments from composer Anton Bruckner and conductor Hans Richter in Vienna, under the heading "A Cold Water Douche," were far less hospitable to Dvorak's thesis:

"German musical literature," Bruckner declared, "contained no written text emanating from the Negro race, and however sweet the Negro melodies might be, they could never form the groundwork of the future music of America.”

Evidently Bruckner never heard of Beethoven's African-Polish friend, the composer and virtuoso violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower. Beethoven composed a violin sonata for Bridgetower titled "Il mulattica" which he later rededicated to Kreutzer whose name it carries still.

The final comments, which were not included in the New York Herald's summary article, were attributed to Hans Richter, conductor of the first performances of the "Ring" at Bayreuth. His post as "the celebrated leader of [Vienna's] Imperial Opera Orchestra and Philharmonic Concerts" would be taken over by Gustav Mahler three years later. It is the unnamed Viennese reporter's voice we hear as much as the maestro's:

"[Richter] is very enthusiastic concerning America and believes greatly in its future music, but he could not realize that this could emanate from the Negro race, nor would he admit that persons playing by ear [more racist assumptions] could be taught music properly, or had ever given evidence of talent in this respect. He spoke of the gypsy race of Hungary, every man, woman and child of which plays by ear, but said that it was quite an exceptional thing for a gypsy to play from written music."

The New York Philharmonic, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 ‘The New World,’ Part 5

It was a busy seven days at the two Heralds and could not have happened spontaneously. Thanks to the miracle of the paper's new commercial cable, "tongues ... were wagging" over "Doctor Dvorak's Bold Declaration" on both sides of the Atlantic. On Wednesday, in the middle of this stormy week, Dvorak completed the scoring of his "New World" Symphony, and in keeping with his normal practice he carefully signed and dated it: "Fine, Praised be to God! May 24, 1893, at nine in the morning." In an unusual gesture, Dvorak returned to the score later that day to add a euphoric note: "Family arrives at Southampton! (telegram 1:33)." One could view this "famous entry" as some quaint exuberance. Some scholars see it as both a revelation and a symbolic dedication: the blessing of his loved ones, vesting them with the New World energy and sense of future he wrote about only seven months earlier: "I haven't got enough words to describe it all." Dvorak's impressions of America were now captured for all time in his symphony, a symphony that "reflects the music of the Negro."

“Dvorak In America” courtesy the Dvorak American Heritage Association

Text adapted from Maurice Peress, Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America's Music and Its African American Roots (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

symphony 9
Antonin Dvorak’s Symphonie No. 9, with Bedrich  Smetan’s Moldau, is available at www.amazon.com

Two essential Dvorak studies:

dvorak to duke
Maurice Peress’s Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots is available at www.amazon.com

dvorak in america
Joseph Horowitz’s Dvorak In America: In Search of the New World is available at www.amazon.com

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