THE CZECH COMPOSER WHO INVENTED AMERICAN MUSIC
Antonin Dvořák, whose 170th anniversary is this year, was not just the greatest of Czech composers. You could argue that Dvořák (1841-1904), the son of a butcher from a village near Prague, was also the father of American classical music. Just as he urged his compatriots to incorporate Czech folk tunes and even birdsong into their music, he urged American composers to use their own songs for inspiration – so much so that he horrified several million Eurocentric strivers and racists.
On October 12th the Bohemian National Hall, at 123 East 73rd Street in New York City, celebrated this influential composer's anniversary by opening a new Dvořák Room featuring portraits of the composer, letters, and original sheet music from Symphony No. 9, aka the New World Symphony. Dvořák wrote that work, the first premier of a major symphony in the Americas, during a two-year stay in the United States (1892-94) while serving as the director of the National Conservatory of Music on East 17th Street.
Dvořák in America
I used to walk by the nearby townhouse the Dvořák family rented, and I was always thrilled to know that such a great artist had lived so close to my little rent-controlled apartment. But ten years ago, New York City's wise leaders allowed that landmark to be torn down, so it's good to see some of Dvořák's life and work in the New World preserved.
His legacy is preserved in other ways, too. It didn't take Dvořák long after his arrival in the United States for him to fall in love with African-American music and to urge Americans to take it seriously. "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music." That sentiment, as you can imagine, did not go over well in the United States or in Europe back of the 1890s. The Czech expat also raised eyebrows when he chose an African-American musician, Harry T. Burleigh, as his personal assistant and mentored another African-American musician named Marion Cook. The latter went on to mentor Duke Ellington.
Above: If you listen to the first and fourth movement -- for example, one minute after this video begins -- you'll hear what you might describe as giddyap music: the roots of American cowboy movie music. Elsewhere you'll hear di-daah di-daah syncopation that is strictly American, and a second movement that is Dvořák's homage to African-American lamentations. He did that lamentation so well that two lyricists later put words to it. Thus, the song "Going Home."
Dvořák in the Czech Republic
In Prague and other places in the Czech Republic the celebration of Dvořák is an ongoing phenomenon that doesn't end when this 170th anniversary year ends. Not for nothing is the hall in the Rudolfinum, where the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra performs, named Dvořák Hall. Moreover, the seven(!) first-rate orchestras in Prague, arguably the most beautiful city in Europe, all perform Dvořák's music – a lot. But there's more:
- Just outside Prague, the house in Nelahozeves where the butcher's son was raised is now the Antonin Dvořák Memorial. The house itself is worth visiting, and the rooms include many of the Dvořák's personal items, from his rocking chair to the portraits of American presidents that he had bought in the New World.
- If you're visiting his birthplace, also see the extraordinary art collection and rare musical instruments in the Nelahozeves Castle.
- In 1932 a 300-year-old Baroque palace in Prague became the Villa Amerika Dvořák Museum (right), and it displays photographs, posters, music, and artifacts associated with the composer. Villa Amerika also hosts concerts, and it's likely to go all out in 2012, the museum's 80th anniversary.
- The Antonin Dvořák Memorial at Vysoká u Příbrami is yet another museum dedicated to this much-loved artist. Not only does it display objects and documents associated with the composer, but there's a listening room as well. Somewhere along the line, the lowly born composer acquired a wealthy brother-in-law who built this grand estate, and that's how Dvořák came to enjoy the digs as a frequent guest.
For further information visit the official travel site of the Czech Republic. See Tripatini's blogs on the Czech Republic, too, including
- an introduction to Czech wine,
- "Get Outta Town," all about Bohemia and Moravia,
- a trip to the Marquis de Sade Club in Prague,
- everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask about the peeing statues of Prague.