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Listening to the New World: Dvorak music festival explores continuing quest for an American identity

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Imagine a time in America when a land rush in Oklahoma drew 40,000 families who withstood heat, sun and the occasional shoot-out to claim a homestead. A time when the halls of Ellis Island clamored with foreign-tongued immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. A time when a Pullman workers’ strike disrupted the nation’s mail delivery and erupted into a spectacle of burning train cars and bayonet charges.

Albert Bierstadt, Indian Canoe, ca. 1886, Oil on canvas.

video icon Watch Dr. Elizabeth Crist discuss Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” by clicking on the image above.

Now imagine an acclaimed Czech composer stepping into the midst of this America and trying to make sense of a country that was trying to make sense of itself.

When Antonin Dvorak came to America in 1892, he encountered a country undergoing a national identity crisis. The music he wrote while here represented multiple aspects of the country and influenced American music for decades to come.

Dvorak’s time in America is the focus of the festival “New Worlds: Dvorak in Search of America,” which will be held at The University of Texas at Austin from Nov. 7 to 22.

The interdisciplinary festival, sponsored by the College of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Harry Ransom Center and the Center for American Music, celebrates the centenary of Dvorak’s death. It also looks closely at the search during the 1890s for an American identity, a search that at some level has never ended.

“In the 1890s, Americans are clinging more and more to anything that separates them from Europe,” says Dr. H.W. Brands, a professor in the Department of History and author of the book “The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s.”

“They’re trying to decide what it is that makes us what we are. And for Dvorak to come over and try to create an American music—what is it? What is he going to be able to write in America that he couldn’t write in Prague or in Paris or in Berlin?” Brands asks. “The obvious answer is something having to do with the West.”

It was during this time that the myth of the American West, with its rugged individualism, its cowboys and its sense of the honor of the ordinary man, was becoming cemented in American culture. The West had long existed as a place of settlement and a place of conflict between whites and Native Americans. But now Americans feared it was disappearing.

William Robinson Leigh, The Roping, 1914

William Robinson Leigh, The Roping, 1914, Oil on canvas.

In 1890, the director of the U.S. Census announced that for the first time in American history there was no identifiable line of settlement in the country. This was summarized in the headlines as the frontier had vanished.

“To many people, the distinguishing characteristic of American culture that separated Americans from Europeans was the existence of a frontier,” Brands says. “If things get really bad in the East, you can always go west. It was as important psychologically as it was actually, because most people didn’t go to the West. But they could. And now there was no place to go.”

The American population at the time was concentrated in the urban and industrial centers of the Northeast and the Ohio Valley, but it was to the West that it turned for its tales of romance and adventure. Some of those tales were delivered by the popular war hero and eventual President, Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt, born in Manhattan and educated at Harvard, was an unlikely candidate to embody the scraggy westerner. But he fell in love with the West on a trip during the 1880s, bought a cattle ranch and from then on considered himself an honorary Westerner. As an author, he wrote the six-volume “The Winning of the West.” As a soldier, he led the famous Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. And as a politician, he fashioned himself as a Westerner and captured the imagination of the American people.

“Roosevelt looked on the West as a peculiar repository of American democracy,” Brands says. “In his writing and his speaking and his political approach, he elevated the West to this kind of special place in American history. The West was America distilled to its essence.”

It is not surprising, then, that when Dvorak came to America he, too, turned toward the West to understand the country. Even before arriving on American shores, Dvorak had read poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” based on the myths of the Ojibway Indians.

Dvorak came to New York as director of New York City’s National Conservatory of Music at the invitation of the conservatory’s founder, Jeannette Thurber. Once here, he entered a continuing conversation about just what constituted American music in a country that was unsure of its identity.

Henry Farny, The Crossing, 1908

Henry Farny, The Crossing, 1908, Gouache and watercolor.

“In his native country, Dvorak was very interested in folk sources,” says Dr. Elizabeth Crist, assistant professor in the School of Music and chair of the Center for American Music. “Being in this country, he became interested in national music, America’s national music.”

The range and variety of American music was thrilling for Dvorak. He made a visit to Spillville, Iowa, where he observed the landscapes Longfellow had evoked being brought under cultivation. There he was excited by the Native American melodies and chants he encountered.

He reveled as well in African American music, such as spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the likes of which he had never heard before. In fact, Dvorak recognized in black music the future music of America, and his prediction was borne out in the ragtime, blues and jazz that would be so central to the music of the 20th century.

“In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote. “They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will…. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.”

Taken with these influences, plus the popular music of Stephen Foster and others, Dvorak was ready to offer his take on America. His “New World Symphony,” which premiered late in 1893 at Carnegie Music Hall, was a resounding success, and it remains to this day one of the most popular symphonies ever composed on American soil.

“New World Symphony” is not American music. It is European music about America. And it incorporates rustic elements of American music. It is elegiac, for a nation mourning the loss of its frontier, and it is celebratory of the landscapes the composer encountered. Of the many pieces that Dvorak composed about America, it remains his best known.

Miro String Quartet

The university’s resident Miró String Quartet will perform Friday, Nov. 19 as part of the event “Dvorak and the American West.”

Crist describes Dvorak’s symphony as “gorgeously scored, with a lush romantic sound.” It is his use of full orchestra and his tuneful melodies that often impress listeners.

“The big sound of that enormous group of people playing together and the melody that comes out of it, something that is eminently memorable, has always captured me,” she says. “There is a vocal quality to it. Often the instruments he chooses, the timbre of those instruments, have a special quality that is very evocative of the voice, of singing.”

Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” will be performed by the Austin Symphony Orchestra on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 12 and 13, in Bass Concert Hall as one of several performances offered to the public as part of the Dvorak festival.

Many celebrations of Dvorak are taking place across the country for his centenary, but the festival at The University of Texas at Austin is perhaps the most ambitious. It draws from the artistic and academic resources at the university as well as scholars and performers from around the world.

Selections from the Blanton Museum will travel to the Bob Bullock State History Museum to demonstrate the vision of the West that American painters have offered. Acclaimed musicians, including Benjamin Pasternack, will perform. And the university’s resident Miró Quartet will offer a recital with other performers titled “Dvorak and the American West.”

The six days of events over two weeks will offer a view not only into Dvorak, but into a critical time in American history. It will remind us that the questions of the 1890s were not entirely answered then and are not entirely answered today: What makes America America? What constitutes American music? As the country evolves, so do the answers.

For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit the Dvorak Festival Web site, New Worlds: Dvorak in Search of America.

Vivé Griffith

Images: Blanton Museum of Art

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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