Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) was a Czech composer in the Romantic mode of the later nineteenth century. Although he is not as highly ranked in the classical music pantheon as composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven or Johannes Brahms, his musical talents were great and diverse. He was a prolific master of composition in many forms including symphonies, concertos, operas, chamber music, choral music, songs, and music for solo instruments, especially the piano. His music is renowned for its lyrical and melodious qualities. Despite the accomplished and often complex character of his compositions, Dvořák and his music are not well understood.
Dvořák cultivated a nationalistic Czech musical idiom by incorporating elements of traditional Czech folk songs and dances into many of his works. Thus, his music seems to be particular in character. In addition, Dvořák, who preferred family life in the country, was a somewhat modest and reticent man, without the Romantic flair that many of his contemporaries displayed.
Michael Beckerman sees Dvořák, both the man and his music, in a different light. In his view, the composer’s personality and psyche had depths and secrets which his music both reveals and camouflages. His book, New Worlds of Dvořák, probes one key episode in Dvořák’s life, the approximately three years between 1892 and 1895 that Dvořák spent in the United States, to bring new insights that help elucidate that ephemeral interaction between a composer’s outer as well as inner life, on one hand, and the compositions that listeners hear, on the other hand.
In the introduction, “A Composer Goes to America,” the author briefly explains the circumstances that took Dvořák to the United States, examines possible reasons the composer went, and presents his case for the importance of this American visit in understanding Dvořák and his music. Dvořák went to New York because Jeannette Thurber, an important patron of the arts, invited him to become director of the National Conservatory of Music. She wanted a composer of European stature to help inspire the creation of great and distinctive American music.
Beckerman offers several plausible motives for Dvořák’s acceptance of this position, including financial considerations, the intrigue of the United States, and the freedom for artistic exploration that the venture offered. For anyone trying to come to terms with Dvořák’s music, this American interlude provides a rich range of resources. During Dvořák’s stay, his almost constant companion and amanuensis was Josef Kovářik, an American musician of Czech ancestry, whose memoirs and letters have been published. Dvořák himself wrote letters, especially to family and friends at home. In addition, the press chronicled many of Dvořák’s activities.
The author uses all this documentation to bring new insights to the music that Dvořák composed during his American sojourn. Much of Beckerman’s study focuses on two key issues. First, he examines the resources on which Dvořák drew to create compositions that could be considered especially American. Second, he inquires into Dvořák’s state of mind and considers the ways that Dvořák’s emotional state may be related to his music. A compact disk that accompanies the book enables the reader to hear musical examples that the author discusses.
The two primary musical influences which appear in Dvořák’s American compositions come from American Indian lore and African American spirituals, and both contribute to Dvořák’s best-known symphony, the Ninth Symphony “From the New World,” which was his first major composition in the United States. Beckerman begins with a section on Dvořák and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Dvořák had already read a Czech translation of this poem, and Beckerman discusses the abortive plans that Dvořák and Jeanette Thurber pursued to compose an opera based on the Hiawatha material. On the day of the symphony’s premiere, December 15, 1893, articles and interviews in the New York Herald and the New York Daily Tribune established Dvořák’s claim that he had based the second and third movements on Longfellow’s poem. Starting from this point, Beckerman analyzes this work to show how musical images inspired by the poem are woven into the symphony, including its finale.
If the American Indian influence came primarily from romanticized literary imagery, the role of African American music is more concrete. In the late spring of 1893, about six months before the premiere of “From the New World,” a series of newspaper articles argued the pros and cons of statements made by Dvořák about the potential of “Negro melodies” to form a basis for the future development of American music....
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