The Sadness of the New World

Dvorak and his family.

In 1893, Dvorak and his family traveled from New York to Chicago by train to visit the World’s Fair. From Chicago, they went to Spillville, Iowa, a farming community of Czech immigrants. While in Spillville, Dvorak met and heard the music of Native Americans for the first time. As his son described it, they were:

“medicine men” belonging to a tribe of thirty or so Iroquois who lived in tents “south of town, across the creek. … My father was interested … in their songs and instruments… Father received photos from the Indians. These photos were among my father’s prize possessions.” 

The songs the Iroquois sang for the composer may have sounded like this:

Or this:

And, as you know, Dvorak was deeply influenced by Black American folk spirituals. If you listen carefully, you will hear this one in the first movement of the Symphony no. 9, played at a brisk tempo on the flute (Beyoncé in a scene from the movie The Fighting Temptations). Dvorak’s assistant Harry T. Burleigh had introduced him to the tune.

A beautiful analysis of the extra-musical program of Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9 by writer Joseph Horowitz.

Some of the sources Horowitz references:

  1. Paintings of the American West
With the Eye of the Mind, Frederic Remington
Indians Spear-Fishing, Albert Bierstadt
Comanche Feats of Horsemanship, George Catlin

2. The Song of Hiawatha, a book-length poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, based on Ojibway legend. The full text can be found here.

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19/19-h/19-h.htm

British music educator Jonathan James makes the case for the Symphony no. 9 as a conflict between the old and new worlds — the old world of Dvorak’s longing for his Bohemian home is the world of nostalgia, that Romantic yearning for a home which was never the way memory pictures it.

What do you think?

While in Spillville, Dvorak wrote his “American” String Quartet, in which he drew on some of the Native American and African-American sounds he encountered. The fourth movement, here, also evokes the speed and dynamism of travel by steam train across the wide, flat open plains of the Midwest:

PUBLIQuartet improvising on Dvorak’s “American” Quartet, in answer to their question: What would the American Quartet sound like if Dvorak had come to the New World in 2019 rather than 1893?

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