Carnegie Hall was not yet one of the most prestigious and important music venues in the world. She only stood for two years. But she was quickly gaining fame. And this was her first world premiere. Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9, Novosvětská.
People crowded in a long line before entering the building even before the public dress rehearsal. Of course, it was sold out at the premiere. And the audience was thrilled. After each sentence, Antonín Dvořák had to stand up in his box and bow to thunderous applause.
The New York Evening Post wrote: “No one who has heard the piece can deny that it is the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country.”
And that was far from all. For American intellectuals, musicians, publicists, Dvořák became one of the co-founders of modern American music. One of the key authors who are still discussed today.
It is one of the greatest triumphs in the history of Czech art. And maybe he’s better known in America than at home.
A geyser of tones constantly boils in it
Of course, Antonín Dvořák did not go to the United States as an unknown composer. He already had great success. And he got noticed in the US mainly because of his UK tour. There, they liked his music so much that they directly ordered premiere compositions for music festivals.
We will not discuss Dvořák’s “school” biography here. Although it is always very tempting to remember that the genius composer was destined by his family environment to be a butcher. And that he started helping his father in the business. But his talent was too great to go unnoticed by those around him. And not to assert himself.
However, according to the memories of the witnesses, Dvořák was not a wild artistic bohemian of the Mozart type. He was modest, kind, thoughtful. But yes, he was definitely obsessed with music. The director of the National Theater from 1883–1900, František Adolf Šubrt, recalls how Dvořák used to come to his office:
„And sometimes, in the middle of a speech, he would turn around and startle. And he came maybe in a few days ‘to finish up what we left off before’. All of this was influenced by music. You could almost tell in his eyes and on his face how the geyser of tones was still boiling and gushing in him in the countless melodic combinations with which he created his works.
Yes, “tone geyser” takes precedence. You can return to the words at any time.
Have you also written any operas?
During the “British tour”, a well-informed journalist asked Antonín Dvořák in an interview with the Sunday Times: “Have you written any operas, too, I think?”
Dvořák replied: “Yes. When I started composing, one of my greatest desires was to write an opera. My first attempt was called The King and the Coalman. Wagner’s influence was evident in the harmony and instrumentation. I had just heard the Master Singers at the time, and not long before Wagner had visited Prague. I was absolutely infatuated with him and I remember following him through the streets just to catch a glimpse of the big little man’s face.
But to my opera. The party was planned and prepared. Choral piano rehearsals began, but everyone complained that the music was too difficult, incomparably harder than Wagner. It’s original, imaginative, they said, but it can’t be sung. Persuasion was useless, they returned the opera to me. In 1875 I took the score, destroyed it, and set the libretto to music again, completely differently. This time they already performed it, and because it was not only easy, but also national, not Wagnerian, it achieved a real success.”
Dvořák had a sense of humor and insight. Perhaps it was precisely because of how strongly he felt about music that he did not take such institutions as newspapers or politics fatally seriously. In 1901, the emperor wanted to show how much he cared about the Czech nation, and had Antonín Dvořák and Jaroslav Vrchlický appointed lifelong members of the House of Lords of the Parliament. Dvořák visited the parliament only once, when he was sworn in.
When he left the hall, he turned joyfully to his wife, who had accompanied him to Vienna. He showed her a bundle of pencils that he had taken from his deputy’s desk: “Look, Anna, he will compose with these!”
Antonín Dvořák was invited to New York by the president of the National Conservatory of Music, Jeannette Thurber. She promised herself a lot from him. That it will help American composers find the tone of truly national music. She felt that so far American compositions sounded too much like Beethoven or Brahms.
Try to imagine it. The year was 1892. After the war between the North and the South, especially in the southern states, segregation began to intensify again. The era of “Jim Crow laws” begins, which returns blacks to the status of second-class citizens, or to the status of completely lawless people.
And a composer from Central Europe arrives in New York, he takes up the position of artistic director of an American conservatory. And soon he tells the public: “The future of this country must be based on what we call Negro tunes. These must be the foundation of any serious and original future school of composition in the United States.”
Such audacity! The son of a butcher from Nelahozevsi came to train Americans on how to perceive their history, their future and their music.
And something like a miracle happened. Not only did they not lynch the naive immigrant. They admire him to this day. And they write books about how much he really contributed to the emancipation of “Negro classical music” and the birth of “American national music.”
It happened at the same time
Wilmington Massacre, November 10, 1898. White Democratic politicians and respectable townspeople fanaticized the crowd. And the crowd drove out the local councilors, some of whom were also dark-skinned. And he murdered.
Dvořák demanded that black students be allowed to study at the conservatory. He even appointed one of them as his secretary. And he listened to her sing spirituals. And he started composing Novosvětská. It is music, considered by many critics and musicians to be one of the most popular and best symphonies ever composed. But there is something more. It is a combination of music, history and philosophy.
Dvořák came to America as a naive, astonished philosopher. According to Aristotle, the classic of philosophy, wonder is the foundation of philosophy. After all, when you start taking things for granted, as a given, then what’s the point of thinking?
Dvořák did not take America for granted. And maybe he didn’t even know much about her. He did not delve into its history. He was naively amazed:
And why shouldn’t black people have the same rights? And why should their music have any public restrictions when it is so strong and really has those “national” roots in it?
On the moon
Historians and musicologists still argue about how big Dvořák’s contribution to the emancipation of “black music” was. Some talk of him composing one of “America’s national anthems.” Others emphasize from today’s point of view that he rather used “black music”. How could a white man, a Central European, authentically understand and interpret it?
Antonín Dvořák is a significant figure in American discussions of the history of music. About history. One would almost feel proud to be Czech.
You could be interested in
An excellent speaker. A charismatic and persuasive leader. One of the greatest figures of the civil rights movement. A moral role model. And an unfaithful husband. Maybe even a sex offender. Martin Luther King and the “Rewriting of History”. Will his sculptures last?
But why? That story is more powerful than some local patriotism, let alone nationalism. It is the story of a naive philosopher who is a brilliant musician. And such a person has a chance to do something significant, no matter where he comes from. Wherever. And who knows? Maybe even naive philosophers who are not geniuses have a chance. They just don’t take things for granted.
New World. Largo was played at the funeral of US presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Gerald Ford.
New World. One of Dvořák’s students in the USA wrote the very popular spiritual Goin’ Home based on the motifs of Largo. A song that is considered a traditional folk spiritual.
Astronaut Neil Armstrong took a recording of Dvořák’s Novosvětská with him on his flight to the moon.