Friday, September 25, 2009

Dvořák in the New World: Part 2

Up Close & Personal with Dvořák's New World Symphony, continued...

The Harrisburg Symphony performs this famous work on the first concert of the season, Saturday, Oct. 3rd at 8pm, and Sunday, Oct. 4th at 3pm, at the Forum.

In our podcast conversation, Stuart Malina and I talk about the program and especially the use of the term "war horse" which always has a negative connotation. It's a masterpiece, certainly, but it's become a "war horse" because of its popularity, as if that's a bad thing. I prefer the original German expression which translates as "Parade Horse." Though it can have the same implications about popularity, at least it sounds a little more celebratory.

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How much American music Dvořák had experienced that first academic year isn't clear. Certainly, he never left New York City except maybe to go to Boston to conduct his Requiem while he was working on the symphony. That summer, he went to Spillville, Iowa, recommended by friends because of its large Czech community. After sketching it out in three quick days, it took twelve more days that June for him to compose a string quartet that became known as “The American” Quartet, later premiered in New York City on New Year's Day, 1894. (It's curious and somewhat disconcerting now to note that the 1950s edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music listed this quartet with a nickname using the “N-Word”).

Three days after he completed this quartet, he began a string quintet that is also sometimes known as “The American” Quintet and which was, at least in part, inspired by the appearance in Spillville of a visiting medicine man from the Kickapoo tribe and his wife, though one source describes it as “a phony traveling show” aimed at tourists rather than authentic music.

Along with the Violin Sonatina he also composed there that summer, not to mention what would soon become one of his greatest hits, the little ditty known as the Humoresque, whether these works were inspired by Native-American or African-American music is immaterial: it was the natural beauty and small-town peace-and-quiet that brought forth a stream of spontaneous creativity that Dvořák, the country boy, had found absent living in the bustling city on lower Manhattan. He wrote to a friend that, walking through the woods and fields along Spillville's Turkey River, he had heard the birds sing for the first time in the eight months since he'd arrived in the United States (see photo, above, of the Dvořák Memorial in Spillville's Riverfront Park). There is probably much to be said for the inspiration of homesickness, as well, whether it was a conscious or subconscious factor in his outpouring of “American” works that year.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Thurber was trying to encourage new works from young American composers, following Dvořák's example and influence. She inaugurated a prize for American composers in 1894 with some of the later winners being George Whitefield Chadwick, Horatio Parker, and a woman named Marguerite Merington (for her opera Daphne).

Curiously, Horatio Parker went on to teach at Yale where he had some difficulties with a strong-minded undergraduate student who had different ideas about what constituted an American sound: but the influence of Dvořák - whether imitation is a form of flattery or not - can still be heard in the symphony that Charles Ives composed as his senior graduation piece.

Part of Dvořák's legacy was this sense of building a national voice out of the study of the nation's folk music. That may be easy in Bohemia in the 1890s as it had been in Russia in the 1870s when Rimsky-Korsakoff and his colleagues of the Mighty Handful had done the same thing. But in America, in the 1890s or even now, what IS actually “American folk music”? For most Americans, it was the music they brought with them from the Old Country, whether they were ex-patriot Czechs living in a small Iowa farm town or Italians living on the lower East Side of Manhattan.

Many White musicians took Dvořák's idea at face value and began, for instance, composing elaborate rhapsodies on Indian themes that to us sound little different than Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies sound when compared to what was then considered Hungarian “folk” music: Gypsy music was a form of urban pop-music of the day and people listened to it in smoky taverns the way many Americans listened to jazz in smoky bars and night-clubs. Most genteel urban audiences in this White-centric racist era saw no need to bring the world of Black America into the concert hall and many orchestras dismissed works with disparaging commentary, like Henry F. Gilbert's “Dance in Place Congo,” written in 1908, just four years after Dvořák's death.

The issue that was overlooked was one of cultural context: for Dvořák, his use of Czech folk songs was a natural consequence of his personal environment, music he learned and played as a child growing up in rural Bohemia. It may not have been quite the same thing for well-to-do Russian composers from urban centers like St. Petersburg to quote Russian folk songs in their music or for Hungarian composers like Bartok to absorb the authentic folk music of the ethnic Hungarians which was almost unknown to the urban population, but at least one could say it was part of their heritage.

But the music many of these young American composers adopted was exactly that: it had no bearing on their own ethnic context. If it sounds insincere to us today, how far was it going to go to form a national musical language if it was no more than putting on a musical costume: did it sound to audiences then like “a phony traveling show aimed at tourists rather than authentic music”?

There was a young woman in Boston who rejected this argument outright: she composed a symphony based on the folk songs of her own ethnic background, the Irish and Scots songs of her New England ancestors. Amy Beach called it her “Gaelic” Symphony and it was, by the way, the first symphony composed by an American composer who was also a woman.

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Meanwhile, Dvořák was not entirely happy in New York, especially when it became clear there were financial troubles affecting the stability of his employment. Due to the Financial Panic of 1893, brought to the surface by the collapse of the railroad industry's “bubble” (it was precipitated by the Reading Railroad going into receivership), Mrs. Thurber's husband lost millions and faced imminent bankruptcy: the future of more than just the conservatory looked dim. Dvořák reluctantly signed a new contract in 1894. However, when Mrs. Thurber was unable to pay him his salary, he informed her that he would not finish his agreed-upon term, even though he didn't actually mention the money or the fact that since she had been unable to uphold her part of the bargain, why should he?

He had just been elected to the most prestigious music organization in Europe, Vienna's Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and he was offered a position to teach composition in Prague. So, between family issues and professional foresight, he left New York before the end of the school year. Though he had now completed that setting of “The American Flag” originally intended for his arrival, he didn't bother to hang around long enough for its first performance.

These subsequent years in America had not been as productive as that first season: the only other major work he wrote here was the B Minor Cello Concerto, still unfinished when he left New York City to return home, not that anyone ever felt like calling it “The American” Concerto. However, it had come about because of another performance in Carnegie Hall.

Victor Herbert, a busy conductor and cellist – not yet famous for his operettas – had a new cello concerto that Dvořák liked very much. Concertos for the cello were very rare, mostly because of the balance issues between the projection of sound and the lower register of the instrument against the backdrop of a full orchestra (none had ever been written by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms). But Dvořák was so taken with Herbert's score that he decided to try one himself. And cellists have been grateful ever since.

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Without Dvořák fronting the National Conservatory, the school's image fell on hard times. The economic crisis was not helped by the new President, Grover Cleveland, who did little to help the situation, although thousands of businesses were ruined and more than four million were left unemployed (he believed, like most people of both major political parties, then, that the business cycle was a natural occurrence and should not be tampered with by politicians).

But the slow fading of the school was more the result of the loss of energy by Mrs. Thurber (see left) than from any single event. It limped along, dealing with an upstart school that would eventually become the Juilliard School of Music, though at times she still lobbied for her idea of a National Conservatory in Washington founded on Old World models.

Finally, the stock market crash of 1928 dried up what money had been available to operate what was left of the school. By 1930, there were no records of any students even though the school was finally declared defunct by the State of New York only in 1952.

The school where Dvořák taught was torn down in 1911 to make room for a new public high school. The house two blocks away where he wrote the New World Symphony was torn down – over the objection of Czech President Vaclav Havel – in the 1990s for a hospital's addition to house patients living with AIDS.

Still, if Mrs. Thurber and her dream had never existed, the world might be the poorer for not having the music Dvořák composed while he was her guest in the New World.

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There is some confusion about the numbering of Dvořák's symphonies.

Many people think he only wrote three – the 7th, the 8th and the 9th – since those are the only ones played with any regularity. People may run across older references (or copies of scores and recordings) that mention the Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, 'From the New World.' This is all the result of works that he'd composed earlier but never published.

In Dvořák's lifetime, his Symphony No. 1 was really his 6th Symphony. His first international success, the 7th Symphony in D Minor, written for London, became his Symphony No. 2. Three years later, on the basis of the D Minor Symphony's success, he managed to publish his 5th Symphony as No. 3. So when the 8th and 9th Symphonies were composed, they became No. 4 & No. 5 respectively. All this was made more confusing by Dvořák's own numbering of them in their manuscripts: he had lost his very first symphony, and so he started over by calling the 6th No. 5 (even though it was published as “No. 1”) and so on.

Though the original 2nd, 3rd and 4th symphonies – all rather Wagnerian affairs – came to light some years after his death, it wasn't until a copy of that very first symphony, written when he was 24, surfaced that the real confusion began. It had been found in a German used book-shop years after it had been rejected by an orchestra for a competition (Dvořák always figured it had been lost). A young man also named Dvořák found it in 1882 but had no idea this particular Dvořák was a soon-to-be famous composer. No one knew about it until this man's son inherited the score in 1923. The composer himself had never heard the work performed: in fact, no one had, until 1936. Still, it wasn't published until 1961 by which time all the symphonies were now going to be re-numbered. This led to a whole generation of confusing recordings, listing it as “Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (Old No. 5).” It certainly makes sense, in the long run, compared to calling such an early and immature work his “Symphony No. 9” just because it took almost a hundred years for it to get to the publishers...

- Dr. Dick

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