A Bohemian in New York

Antonín  Dvořák (1841 – 1904) was a genial, unassuming man for whom life was “a very wonderful, uncomplicated thing”. Arriving in New York in 1892, his patron handed him over to the music critic James Huneker for the day’s excursion. This started innocently enough with Mass at a Bohemian church, but it soon degenerated into a glorified pub crawl through “the great thirst-belt” of central New York.

“I made a mistake in believing that American strong waters would upset his Czech nerves”, Huneker recalled as he struggled to keep up. At the nineteenth whisky cocktail, Huneker turned to  Dvořák “ ‘Master … don’t you think it’s time we ate something?’ He gazed at me through those awful whiskers which met his tumbled hair half-way, ‘Eat. No. I no eat. We go to a Houston Street restaurant. You go, hein? We drink the Slivovitch. It warms you after so much beer.’ ”

Dvořák was not a noted boozehound, for composers that accolade surely has to go to Modest Mussorgsky, with a special mention for Alexander Glazunov who tried to conduct the premiere of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony while sloshed to the gills. But Huneker observed many things about  Dvořák on that first meeting, describing him as “an angry-looking bulldog with a beard… fierce Slavonic eyes … (but) as mild a mannered man as ever scuttled a pupil’s counterpoint”.

Dvorak and family in New York
Dvorak and family in New York

Dvořák had hesitated before signing the contract which eventually brought him to New York. After years of hardship while struggling to be recognised, he had become Bohemia’s most well-known composer and was lionised internationally by audiences and critics alike. And then there was the delicate matter of his recent appointment as professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory. But the offered salary of $15,000 was 25 times greater than the salary he earned in Prague and it included a generous four months’ summer leave – who could possibly refuse? The matter was finally resolved by a family vote one lunchtime and his wife Anna immediately made him sign the elegantly presented contract (although in his haste, he forgot to date the contract at the top).  Dvořák’s son later recalled that when his father returned to the table “(he) declared that it was not definite as long as the contract was at home. So Mother took the contract and delivered it to the post office”.

Lower Fifth Avenue (1890) by Frederick Childe Hassam
Lower Fifth Avenue (1890) by Frederick Childe Hassam

The contract was for the directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, established a few years previously by the wealthy American Jeanette Meyers Thurber (1850–1946). She had studied at the Paris Conservatory and had a vision of creating a similar publicly funded conservatory in America, dedicated to creating “a national musical spirit” with talented students, regardless of their economic or racial background, gender or disability.

Thurber’s was a bold and a forward-looking vision but this great philanthropist is little remembered today, perhaps because she never commissioned any buildings or institutions in her name. Nevertheless, having a nationalist composer as the director of the Conservatory was important to her vision of inspiring local talent rather than simply importing Europeans to do the job (or, condescendingly, to show “how it’s done”). To net  Dvořák – one of the leading composers of the day – was quite a catch and a personal triumph for Thurber and it was a source of constant pride for the rest of her long life. Better still,  Dvořák did not disappoint and he produced some of his best known and finest compositions during his stay. (Intriguingly, Thurber had originally considered inviting Jean Sibelius – one can only wonder how that might have turned out!)

Dvořák’s visit was smoothed by a chance acquaintance from the Prague Conservatory, the young Czech-American musician Jozef Kovařik, born in the tiny, mostly Czech settled town of Spillville, Iowa. (Kovařik’s father had emigrated there and was a school-teacher and organist at the local St. Wenceslaus Catholic church). Kovařik became his personal assistant and accompanied the  Dvořáks to New York with their two eldest children on a boat from Bremen, arriving on 26 September 1892.

327 East 17th Street, New York City, Façade of house where the Dvořáks lived
327 East 17th Street, New York City, Façade of house where the Dvořáks lived

With Kovařik as his guide,  Dvořák took to New York once he got used to the traffic although unlike Gershwin, the cityscape never featured in his music. For someone raised in rural Bohemia,  Dvořák found the social engagements rather tiring (as it meant staying up late) and he was frequently pestered for interviews by an inquisitive local press, enamoured of having such a distinguished international figure in their midst. He lived at a townhouse at 327 East 17th Street which was a short stroll to the National Conservatory. Whenever possible, he liked to indulge in his favourite pastime – train spotting, and failing that, watching ships.

It was not long before he set to work on what would become his most acclaimed  work, his world-famous ninth symphony, From the New World (Z nového světa), premiered on 16 December 1893 to instant acclaim. The New York Evening Post called it “the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country” and it was undoubtedly the greatest success of Dvořák’s career.

“It was at my suggestion that he composed this symphony”, wrote Thurber in her memoirs. “He used to be particularly homesick on steamer days when he read the shipping news in the New York Herald. Thoughts of home often moved him to tears. On one of these days I suggested that he write a symphony embodying his experiences and feelings in America — a suggestion which he promptly adopted.”

In writing the symphony, Dvořák had been fascinated by African American and American Indian music “It is the spirit of the Negro and Indian melodies which I have endeavoured to reproduce in my new symphony” he announced, but he quickly backpedalled owing to a kerfuffle stirred up in the press over possible borrowings from Negro spirituals (in all likelihood thanks to his love of pentatonic scales). He tried to brush it off. “Leave out all that nonsense about my having made use of original American national melodies” he instructed his compatriot Oskar Nedbal, who conducted its first performance in Berlin.

With such an exhilarating and universal masterpiece, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about, but in the debate over the “Americanness” of the work, there is the unmistakeable whiff of racism. Dvořák had raised a few hackles on arriving in New York when he contended “in Negro songs I have found a secure base for a national musical school”. The New York Herald summed up the unease over this “American” symphony, describing it as a distinctive American work “in so far as it gave the Czech composer’s impression of the country”.

In any case, Dvořák was no ethnomusicologist. He adored the spirituals that his pupil Harry Burleigh performed in tasteful, romantically styled arrangements. Thanks to Thurber he had seen one of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” shows (which included singing and dancing from a troupe of Ogala Sioux) and later he marvelled at Iroquois dancers in a production from the delightfully named  ‘Kickapoo Medicine Company’. But these shows were unlikely to have influenced him as the symphony was already close to completion.

Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1865.
Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1865.

He did however admit to being inspired by Henry Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha.  In retrospect, we are perhaps better off not knowing that the third movement of this glorious work was inspired by the dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis “on the shores of Gitche Gumee, on the dunes of Nagow Wudjoo, by the shining Big-Sea-Water”.

Dvořák spent a blissful summer vacation in 1893 with his family in Kovařik’s hometown of Spillville, Iowa and he rented a two-story house which still stands today as a Dvořák museum.  At last, away from the city, he could relax. He was in a small Czech community of around 200 people, and apart from surprising the locals with his organ playing at the local St. Wenceslaus church, he liked nothing better than to take a pail of beer down to the Turkey River and to make notes on the sounds of nature, especially birdsong. This sense of contentment would find its way into his lyrical String Quartet in F, “American”.

It was on his way back to New York that Dvořák found  inspiration for his last great masterpiece when he stopped by the Niagara Falls. He stood spellbound for five minutes in front of the gushing waters and exclaimed “Lord God, this will become a symphony in B minor!” (Years later, Ravel would stand at the same spot and exclaim Quel majestueux si bémol! – ‘What a majestic B-flat!’).The resulting work was his astonishing, incomparable Cello Concerto in B minor which he completed in February 1895. Full of yearning for his homeland, he left New York for good later that spring to return to his beloved Bohemia.

Dvořák never got around to producing his opera for Thurber on Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha which she had long anticipated, although it wasn’t long before the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor produced the cheerful, popular and instantly forgettable cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

Antonín Dvořák Statue by sculptor Ivan Meštrović, Stuyvesant Park, New York
Antonín Dvořák Statue by sculptor Ivan Meštrović, Stuyvesant Park, New York

Sadly, Thurber’s National Conservatory went into decline as competition among jostling philanthropists to create private music schools increased (such as the Julliard School, named after a textile merchant). Her once esteemed conservatory eventually folded with the stock market crash of 1929.

In spite of protests from the Czech President Václav Havel, the Americans’ love of bulldozing historical sites prevailed in 1991 when Dvořák’s New York home at 327 East 17th Street was demolished.

And what of Dvořák’s legacy in American music? The music critic James Huneker was unequivocal. “The influence of Dvořák’s American music has been evil; ragtime is the popular pabulum now.”


Kevin Painting


Published 27 August 2015 on primephonic.