About this Recording
8.559777 - DVOŘÁK AND AMERICA (Deas, Pasternack, PostClassical Ensemble, Gil-Ordóñez)
English 

Dvořák and America

 

The arrival of Antonín Dvořák in September 1892 as director of New York City’s National Conservatory of Music represented a triumph of persistence on the part of Jeannette Thurber, the conservatory’s visionary founder. Not only did so celebrated a European composer confer an indispensable imprimatur on the fledgling school; Dvořák, Thurber knew, was an instinctive democrat, a butcher’s son, a cultural nationalist. Dvořák had hardly set foot in Manhattan before learning, and not only from Thurber, that (as he wrote to friends in Prague) “the Americans expect great things of me and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music. If the small Czech nation can have such musicians, they say, why could not they, too, when their country and people are so immense?” And Dvořák—overwhelmed by new excitement and attention, by the scale and pace of American life, by the calibre of American orchestras—more than took the bait. “It is certainly both a great and a splendid task for me and I hope that with God’s help I shall accomplish it. There is more than enough material here and plenty of talent.”

By talent, Dvořák meant American composers and instrumentalists, including his own pupils, some of whom he found “very promising.” By material, he meant American sights and sounds, American roots: “another spirit, other thoughts, another colouring…something Indian.” There were no indigenous people in Bohemia; like other Europeans, Dvořák was fascinated by the Native American (and had already read Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha in Czech). And there were no blacks in Hapsburg lands; in New York, he had for the first time heard such “Negro melodies” as Deep River and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot—in which he detected, as he famously told the New York Herald in May 1893, the necessary foundation for “the future music of this country.”

In short: with his rustic roots and egalitarian temperament, Dvořák was precisely the kind of cultural nationalist to inspire Americans. He proved inquisitive and empathetic, as eager to learn as to teach. His aspirations for American music resonated with the hopes of Thurber and other New Yorkers impatient for the emergence of a musical idiom as recognizably “American” as Dvořák was Bohemian, or Tchaikovsky Russian, or Beethoven German.

The climactic moment in Dvořák’s American career came on 16 December 1893—the première of his New World Symphony by the New York Philharmonic. The issue of whether this music sounded “American” instantly ignited fierce debate. At stake were delicate issues of national identity—in particular, whether the African-Americans and Native Americans from whose music Dvořák drew inspiration could be considered representative or emblematic “Americans” in the first place. In New York, a city of immigrants, Dvořák’s method was taken to heart. In Boston, he was denounced as a “negrophile” and his music was termed “barbaric.”

Dvořák himself told the New York press that the symphony’s middle movements were inspired by The Song of Hiawatha. And it was well-known that the music we now call “spirituals” was another major influence on the symphony’s tunes and the imagery they engendered. It speaks volumes that the Largo of the New World Symphony was in 1922 turned into an ersatz spiritual, Goin’ Home, by Dvořák’s student William Arms Fisher. The same music, the same movement, while not a narrative, is pregnant with Hiawatha, with the death of Minnehaha, with a West of the imagination (Dvořák had yet to journey there) conveyed by smooth textures and spread chords, by uncluttered, unadorned musical space. With its incessant tom-tom and exotic drone, the “primitive” five-note compass of its skittish tune, its whirling and hopping build-up, the Scherzo of the New World Symphony depicts the Dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis at Hiawatha’s wedding. In the symphony’s finale, a stentorian “Indian” theme launches a fleet, savage chase. With its Indian threnody, the coda—a dead-march, a cry of pain, a loud last chord fading to silence—seals one of the symphony’s meanings: it is, all of it, an elegy for a vanishing race.

In the decades following Dvořák’s death in 1904, the American controversy over the New World Symphony dissipated. The work generally became known as the testament of a homesick European; its possible Americanisms were considered superficial, trite, or purely conjectural. The critical tide began to turn in the 1990s thanks to the American music historian Michael Beckerman, who in a series of articles and a book, New World of Dvořák (2004), undertook unprecedented research into possible programmatic correlations between Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha and Dvořák’s Symphony—and wound up with a radically fresh reading that circled back to what New York’s music critics had to say in 1893. As my own research, at that time, focused on American classical music in the late Gilded Age—the period of Dvořák’s American sojourn—I keenly appreciated the plausibility of it all. Turn-of-the-century Americans were caught in a vortex of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization. Issues of national identity acquired an acute urgency. Beckerman and I are true believers for whom Dvořák figures vitally in late nineteenth-century American culture; and we hear in Dvořák an “American style” transcending the superficial exoticism of a Rimsky-Korsakov in Italy or a Glinka in Spain.

The present Hiawatha Melodrama originated at a Dvořák festival I curated as executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in January 1994. In musical parlance, the term “melodrama” refers to a composition mating music with the spoken work. As part of his attempt to demonstrate the relationship of Longfellow’s poem to the New World Symphony, and also to give a sense of the composer’s inner hearing, Beckerman had combined sections of Dvořák’s Symphony with excerpts from The Song of Hiawatha. In Brooklyn, he presented this “melodrama” with a taped accompaniment. I suggested to him that it be turned into a continuous concert work with orchestra—which we collaboratively achieved. This “second” version of the Melodrama, some nine minutes long, has been widely performed by such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, Buffalo Philharmonic, Pacific Symphony, and North Carolina Symphony.

The Hiawatha Melodrama here recorded is a third and “final” version which I have expanded to include excerpts from Dvořák’s American Suite and Violin Sonatina. Our objective has been to turn a demonstration arising from scholarly inquiry into a bona fide concert work. The narrative, extracted from Longfellow’s poem, is no longer fragmentary but continuous: it tells the Hiawatha story, beginning to end. From the American Suite I have extracted an elegiac Indianist refrain from the third movement. From the Sonatina I have used themes from the Larghetto, which is a portrait of Hiawatha’s wife Minnehaha. I have also added transitional passages of my own. The orchestration, where not by Dvořák, is by Angel Gil-Ordónez.

As Beckerman has observed: “Despite his reputation as a composer of abstract instrumental music, Dvořák used extra-musical images to generate musical ideas throughout his career. In fact, his central ambition was to be a successful composer of opera. In the context of Dvořák’s career, From the New World is at once his last symphony and a precursor to the mature symphonic poems, all of which follow a narrative thread, and to his final trio of operas.” To which it may be added that we know that Dvořák, in New York, aspired to compose a Hiawatha opera or cantata, and that pertinent sketches infiltrate his sketches for the New World Symphony.

In its earlier manifestation, the Hiawatha Melodrama attempted to extrapolate the alignments between the New World Symphony and The Song of Hiawatha. The Melodrama here recorded (and premièred by PostClassical Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordónez, and Kevin Deas at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on 1 March 2013) incorporates those alignments but elsewhere does not attempt to argue Dvořák’s intent. It may be regarded as a hint of what a Dvořák Hiawatha cantata or opera might have sounded like. Primarily, however, we have attempted to create a viable 35-minute concert work for narrator and orchestra. There are six sections, as follows:

[1] Prologue

[2] Part One: Hiawatha’s Wooing. The music adapts the Larghetto from Dvořák’s Sonatina for Violin and Piano (composed in Iowa in 1893), as well as portions of the Largo from the New World Symphony (which Dvořák linked both with “Hiawatha’s Homeward Journey” and with Minnehaha’s death). Once popularized by Fritz Kreisler, among others, as the Indian Lament, the Larghetto from the Sonatina is (as Beckerman has shown in detail) a fragrant portrait of Minnehaha (“Laughing Water”), Hiawatha’s wife, as described by Longfellow. Minnehaha was so named after Minnehaha Falls, whose alternation of light and shade evoked the infant’s vicissitudes of mood. Dvořák, accordingly, alternates between major and minor modes. The simplicity of his Minnehaha theme, its tom-tom repetitions, its aura of magic and mystery typify Dvořák’s “Indian” style. Midway through, he delicately depicts the 53-foot waterfall itself—here orchestrated with harp arpeggios.

[3] Part Two: Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The music is extracted from the Scherzo of the New World Symphony—which begins, as Dvořák testified, with stomping, whirling music inspired by the Dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis at Hiawatha’s wedding. The alignments with the song of Chibiabos and the story told by Iagoo are Beckerman’s.

[4] Part Three: The Death of Minnehaha. The music begins with an exquisite C sharp minor passage from movement three of the American Suite in Dvořák’s “Indian” style, and continues with an even more poignant C sharp minor passage from the Largo of the New World Symphony. As Beckerman has documented, the forest funeral was singled out by the Czech writer and composer Katerina Emingerova as a source passage for the Largo.

[5] Part Four: The Hunting of Pau-Puk-Keewis. The music is extracted from the finale of the New World Symphony (a Beckerman alignment). Certain Longfellow lines are here sung. Beckerman comments: “While this at first may seem far-fetched, one must remember that as soon as he returned to Bohemia in 1895, he composed a series of tone poems base on the ballads of K. J. Erben. In at least one of these, he set down the poem, line by line, beneath the music—so this process was not alien to him.”

[6] Epilogue: Hiawatha’s Departure. The music remembers the American Suite theme from Part Three, and passages from the New World Symphony. The singular ending of the New World Symphony—with its dirge, apotheosis, and diminuendo—can only be programmatic. Conductors are free to invent whatever story suits their reading. But it is (to say the least) a plausible guess that Dvořák’s reading of this elegiac ending, with its timpani taps, was inspired by the ending of Longfellow’s poem.

In Dvořák’s Humoresques, composed in Prague in between stints in Manhattan, the composer’s American and Bohemian styles are sometimes juxtaposed cheek by jowl. The Fourth Humoresque begins with a seeming snatch of Porgy and Bess—composed by George Gershwin four decades later. If the Fourth Humoresque is obscure, the Seventh hums a dance tune so familiar in the United States that many Americans doubtless assume an American composed it.

What Willa Cather, describing the impact of Dvořák’s New World Symphony in her novel The Song of the Lark (1915), called “the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands” is embodied in the clean sonority and uncluttered, unadorned musical space of Dvořák’s American style. The little-known American Suite, begun in New York just after the première of the New World Symphony, is a case in point. Dvořák wrote it for solo piano, then lovingly orchestrated it in 1895. Simplicity—its serene speech, shunning compositional virtuosity—is its crux. The third movement is a jaunty dance not far removed from the world of stride piano. The fourth evokes the vacant Iowa landscape which he found “sometimes very sad, sad to despair.” In Spillville, Iowa, Dvořák had listened to interracial Kickapoo Medicine Show musicians including two African-Americans who intermingled Native American dances with banjo and guitar. In the American Suite, prairie vacancy mates with cakewalk, and—in the fifth and final movement—an A minor “Indian” tune turns into an A major minstrel song.

The Indianist movement in American music, largely inspired by Dvořák, was spearheaded by the fascinating and insufficiently remembered composer/journalist Arthur Farwell (1872–1952). Though the Indianists are today vaguely recalled (if at all) as naive and culturally exploitative, Farwell was no naif. He viewed Native American chant as one part of a varied tapestry of Americana. His lifelong reverence for the Native American—which began in childhood, when he lived for a time in a Native American village on Lake Superior—was an honourable, if Romanticized, product of his time. As a pioneering publisher of American composers, he abhorred sentimentality “like poison” and if it cannot be said that all his own music transcends kitsch, his best works deserve to be perpetuated as superior early efforts to create a singular American concert style. With its dissonance and rhythmic bite (remarkably progressive for 1904), the Navajo War Dance No. 2—dedicated to John Kirkpatrick (later to champion Ives’ Concord Sonata), who held it in high regard—suggests something like a New World Bartók. Pawnee Horses (1905), barely a minute long, is based on an Omaha song Farwell considered so complex in its rhythms that it could not be performed by “any known singer except an Indian.” In 1937, Farwell created an eight-part a cappella choral version of Pawnee Horses for John Finlay Williamson’s Westminster Choir—an American choral masterpiece here recorded for the first time.


Joseph Horowitz
Executive Director, PostClassical Ensemble


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