A Tale of Dvorak in Two Cities

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Those taking John’s upcoming Dvorak Class may expect to learn about the composer’s place in the “nationalism in music” movement that swepth through Europe in the 19th century. But one of the more interesting parts of Dvorak’s biography is his time in the United States in the 1890s. Joseph Horrowitz writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Dvorak’s role in the story of American musical nationalism.

“For three years, beginning in the fall of 1892, [Dvorak] found himself embroiled in a sustained and often bitter debate over issues of race and national identity that pitted against each other the two cities in which American classical music was born.”


As a young cello student I encountered Dvorak’s string quartets and was, of course, taught to look for Native American melodies, whether or not they’re actually in there. Horrowitz suggests that Dvorak’s true epiphany was his encounter with negro spirituals, arguing that “only an outsider, taken unawares, could have experienced plantation songs as a tumultuous surprise; and no American composer could have validated black culture as Dvorak would.”

The story is that Dvorak’s campaign was greeted in with enthusiasm in New York City and snobbery in Boston. “Dvorak was viewed in Boston as an unwanted interloper. His view that ‘red’ and ‘black’ Americans could be considered emblematic or representative was thought naïve at best,” Horrowitz writes.

There follows a brief but interesting comparison of turn-of-the-century musical culture in both cities, with Boston cast as a conservative stronghold and New York as a grittier haven for upwardly mobile immigrants, symbolized by the leadership of the then-new Metropolitan Opera.  It ends on a wistful note, wondering what Dvorak would have though of elitist character of classical music in America today.

An interesting article on an topic about to be taught at the Graham School.