New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music available in Hardcover
- Pub. Date:
- Yale University Press
Sullivan brings popular and canonical culture into his wide-ranging discussion. He explores the effects on European music of American authors as diverse as Twain, DuBois, Melville, and Langston Hughes, examining in particular Dvorák’s fascination with Longfellow, the obsession of Debussy and Ravel with Poe, and the inspiration Whitman provided for Holst, Vaughan Williams, and dozens more. Sullivan uncovers the African American musical influence on Europe, beginning with spirituals and culminating in the impact of jazz on Stravinsky, Bartók, Walton, and others. He analyzes the lure of Hollywood and Broadway for such composers as Weill, Korngold, and Britten and considers the power of the American landscapefrom the remoteness of the prairie to the brutal energy of the American city. In European music, Sullivan finds, American culture and mythology continue to resonate.
|Publisher:||Yale University Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
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Read an Excerpt
The Legacy of the Sorrow Songs
The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies.... These are the folk songs of America. Antonin Dvorák
Shortly after arriving in America in 1892, Antonin Dvorák declared that the most distinctive folk music in the United States came from black America: only through a recognition of this fundamental fact, said Dvorák, could America realize itself musically. Now a commonplace argument in the post-jazz, post-rock era, this assertion was hugely provocative in its time. That it was articulated by a white European made it more so. That the gospel of black music then spread to other Old World composers before it took root in America seems equally oddbut perfectly in tune with Europe's embrace of subversives such as Poe, Whitman, and Melville before America could deal with them.
It was not only the music of black Americans that attracted these composers but their literaturetheir narratives, lyrics, and poems. Their story of dispossession, isolation, and ultimate endurance became the basis for a complex musical art that was both invigorating and nostalgic, optimistic and despairing, an art that would eventually bridge popular and elite culture. The plight of Native Americans was often linked to the black experience in the imaginations of these artists, becoming part of the musical mix in much the same way "Black Indian" Mardi Gras music did in New Orleans.
Dvorák composed his most popularsymphony in 1892 in New York City, with a copy of Longfellow's poetry on his music stand and the soulful sounds of black folks, sung by his most gifted student, ringing in his ears. Dubbing it "From the New World," he invented a new genre, one peculiarly literary and multicultural, bursting with energy yet drenched in nostalgia. Scholars would squabble throughout the next centuryand still doover the extent to which, if any, this revolutionary work was American and whether it influenced American music; meanwhile, the more powerful, largely unnoticed legacy would be "New World" experiments by other Europeans.
Dvorák's new symphony fanned some of the ugliest flames in American racial politics, changing forever the way we think about classical music. Yet, painfully shy to the point of self-deprecation, he meant only to accomplish two modest goals: to sketch musical impressions of a country he found endlessly fascinating and to encourage Americansas Emerson had already done in "The American Scholar" and as he himself had done in Bohemiato be themselves and, as Emerson advised, to stop listening to the "courtly muses" and start listening to the "ballad in the street." Dvorák was searching for what he called an American voice. Like Emerson, he was a peculiarly realistic Romantic, one who rejected a search for "the great, the remote, the romantic," instead discovering the unifying design of those very things in the everyday. Dvorák was interested in all of America, from the lonely plains of Iowa to the "push of the streets" in New York.
In a remarkable coincidence, the British composer Frederick Delius was experimenting with his own New World Symphonies at almost exactly the same time as Dvorák, giving them such names as "Florida," "Hiawatha," and "Appalachia." But Delius was still an unknown, whereas Dvorák as Henry Krehbiel, James Huneker, and other exponents of the classical age of New York criticism assertedwas the most renowned and popular composer of his day.
He was certainly a coup for Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, a wealthy patron (and the wife of a grocer), who talked Dvorák (the son of a butcher) into chairing her newly founded National Conservatory of Music, in New York City. Every word Dvorák said and every note he composed were eagerly listened to during his two-year tenure in the United States. The words, it turned out, were fewonly a handful of articles and interviews appearedbut they were written in passionate, precise English. The notes, however, were manysome dozen symphonic, chamber, and vocal works.
Dvorák was the perfect luminary to head a new conservatory in a country still radically insecure about its musical identity: he was famous and a foreigner. Similarly, Mrs. Thurber was of German lineage, as was her conservatory; the American music she championed would therefore have an Austrian-Germanic pedigree. Best of all, Dvorák was a peasant who had made good, in the best American tradition of the self-made man. Not that his experience had been altogether happy. H. L. Mencken pointed out that despite his popularity, Dvorák suffered from ugly classist subcurrents directed toward him and "was commonly regarded as a sort of inspired clodhopper"; even Hans yon Bülow, his greatest champion, "almost cooked Dvorák's goose by calling him 'Der Bauer im Frack' ('the peasant in a dress coat'). This apt and yet unfortunate label has stuck to him ever since." Dvorák had great hopes that America, with its egalitarian traditions, would be more hospitable.
At first, things went more or less according to script. Dvorák launched two large-scale New World pieces for Mrs. Thurber even before his journey to America. In the summer of 1892, he began sketches for a cantata eventually called The American Flag; this grandiose entrata was to herald both his arrival in the New World and the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of it. But Mrs. Thurber was late sending Dvorák the texta clunky patriotic poem by Joseph Rodman Drakeso Dvorák first composed another calling card, a vigorous Te Deum. Despite its Latin text, this initial entry in Dvorák's American period projected a cheerful primitivism forecasting the New World Symphony, with its driving tom-tom rhythms and unpredictable open harmonies.
The American Flag is a genuine oddity. Completed two days before Dvorák began the New World Symphony, this forgotten work has been cursed since its inception. Dvorák never got to hear it, for the American premiere occurred just days after he returned to Europe. Possibly because of its tub-thumping American patriotism, the composition did not make its way back across the Atlantic until the 1970s, when it was performed in London by Michael Tilson Thomas. It continues to be denigrated by critics for being totally uncharacteristic and peculiar without being interesting, the only clinker from Dvorák's American period. Its "skyborn glories" and "canon mouthings loud" are viewed as a bomb in more ways than one.
With its snare drums and martial aura, The American Flag is the Dvorák equivalent of the 1812 Overture and Wellington's Victory. It is a surprisingly agreeable work, and an important one. With the exception of a Stephen Foster transcription, it is Dvorák's only published setting in English, the text of which is clearly projected in three-part harmony. It is also his only work to be initially published by an American company, a function of its belligerent patriotism. The poem is indeed dreadful, a crude piece of imperialism pronouncing the American flag "the guard and glory of the world!" But music is full of bad poems shedding their verbal weight and taking flight when set by a Bach or a Schubert. Dvorák was clearly searching for a new style to announce his American arrival, and Drake's simple, hyperbolic couplets provided a useful vehicle precisely because their mediocrity made them unobtrusive even as they provided the requisite patriotic sentiment.
What resulted was a series of bracing experiments in sound. From the opening fanfares, which never go where the listener expects, to the chromatic fireworks in the "Apotheosis," the piece is full of imaginative modulations and bold colors held together by Dvorák's instinctive gift for melody. The listener must, it is true, work rather actively to ignore the text. Drake's obsession with patriotic gore becomes unintentionally sinister, as when "shoots of flame" and "gory sabres" are personified as "that lovely messenger of death," a line made creepier by being clothed, without irony, in some of Dvorák's' most seductive string writing. Yet this text is no more dated or reactionary than numerous others used by composers from Handel to Wagner and was not, of course, deemed at all offensive in Dvorák's America. This was standard patriotic puff, and Dvorák, eager to prove his enthusiasms for America, latched onto it. In any case, by the time he left America he had demonstrated a far more influential political liberalism.
Indeed, it is significant that this cantata was sketched before Dvorák came to America and heard black spirituals. (There is no evidence he changed his initial outline once he arrived.) The American Flag is his pre-folkloric vision of America: it doesn't sound like any other Dvorák, and it makes a wonderful racket. If some of the harmony is Wagnerian, as critics complain, that only enhances its New World aspirations: one of Wagner's earliest works, it should be remembered, was a Columbus Overture.
Dvorák's ambitions concerning Columbus were large. With his Te Deum he had already undertaken one ambitious project for the commemoration of the discovery of America. In November 1892 he agreed on another, one far more grandiose. In collaboration with his National Conservatory colleague Victor Herbert, another European in the New World, he undertook to write music for a massive theatrical project called "The Great Discovery." Dvorák and Herbert had a relationship of mutual adulation: Dvorák admired Herbert for his lyrical gift and because he sought to dissolve distinctions between popular and highbrow art; Herbert regarded Dvorák as a "master musician" and loved being in the presence of his "childlike simplicity and naturalness." With this kind of chemistry between its creators, "The Great Discovery" had great potential.
Conceived by the legendary theater manager Steele MacKaye for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, this event was to be the inauguration of a new genre called a "Spectatorio," a series of elaborate pantomime and stage effects enacted on a giant stage called a "Spectatorium." A quintessentially American combination of kitsch and grandiosity, brilliance and quackery, the "Spectatorio" was canceled for lack of funds, but it moved Dvorák into a certain epic frame of mindthe American habit of thinking bigjust two months before he began his New World Symphony. It also firmed up the friendship between Dvorák and Herbert, a connection that ultimately resulted in Dvorák's Cello Concerto, one of the glories of his American period.
Dvorák was excited about the notion of developing a National Conservatory, even though he dreaded leaving his native Bohemia. But when he arrived in New York in the fall of 1892, he discovered there was nothing national to conserve. Astonished to find that Edward MacDowell and other members of the American musical order werewith the exception of a few token "Indian" piecesslavishly imitating European models, Dvorák quickly resolved to do in America what he had already done in Europe: to mine a folk vernacular and convert it into art that would be both formal and accessible.
That is precisely what he did in composing his epic Ninth Symphony, which turned out to be not only his own most popular work but the most beloved symphony in American history. This is a classic case of the public, which has always adored the New World Symphony in a thoroughly uncomplicated way, being more sensible than the critics. Always an awkward public personality, Dvorák was flattered but also embarrassed at the 1893 premiere: "The papers say that no composer ever had such a triumph," he wrote Simrock; "people applauded so much that I had to take the bow and thank them from my box just as if I were some king! ... I rather like to avoid similar ovations." Hired to produce democratic art but treated like a king: that was to be Dvorák's paradoxical fate throughout his American stay.
Dvorák's audience had every reason to cheer his new symphony. So many complicated controversies have swirled around the New World since its Carnegie Hall premiere that the simple spontaneity and exuberance of the piece have all but been buried. Whatever the ultimate sources of the symphonyand as we shall see they are manyit has a powerful immediacy, an instantly apprehendible unity of emotion and sensibility. The sense of open spaces and New World freshness are palpably present, even if the literal sources are hard to pin down. That the work indeed opened up a New World was not for a moment doubted by the audience or the New York Philharmonic. The president of the Philharmonic spoke for audience and players when he called the occasion "epoch-making" and spoke of the "justness of the title."
The musical intelligentsia, however, had a far more ambivalent reaction. Their quarrel was not with the music itselfalthough by the mid-twentieth century they were carping about that toobut with what Dvorák said about it, especially his insistence on calling it a New World symphony. In culture wars, words are always more important than results, at least for the warriors, and this was no exception. Dvorák's difficulty was not his use of American folk music but his insistence that this folk vernacular was blackthat slave songs offered the best vehicle for building a New World tradition.
He voiced this politically incorrect discovery in typically blunt, enthusiastic language full of musts rather than maybes: "I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies," he told the New York Herald in May 1893. "This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed with this idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction." Dvorák pronounced Negro melodies to be the "folk songs of America"; rather than merely encouraging American composers to incorporate these melodies, he declared that "they must turn to them. All the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people. Beethoven's most charming scherzo is based upon what might now be considered a skillfully handled negro melody.... The aptitude of the colored race for music, vocal and instrumental, has long been recognized, but no definite steps have hitherto been taken to develop it."
After hearing Native American music during a summer sojourn in Spillville, Iowa, Dvorák broadened his assertion about American folk music to include Indian chants; these, he said, influenced the two inner movements of the New World Symphony, with Longfellow's Hiawatha as a poetic backdrop. But he never accorded Indian music the central importance he ascribed to black plantation songs. His advocacy was passionate and unstinting. In addition to a new harmonic freedom and rhythmic audacity, African-American songs had what he regarded as unlimited emotional range, indeed "all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or any purpose." The syncopated rhythm and moody harmony of black hymns were a bracing alternative to both Brahms and Wagner. Dvorák was not the first white artist to be stirred by black music; he was, however, the first important composer since Louis Gottschalkwhose music was taken much more seriously in Europe than in Americato take in the full measure of this music and to understand its significance.
Dvorák had personal as well as aesthetic reasons for his love of black music. What attracted him was its representation of struggle against discrimination and oppressionthe same struggle that attracted other Old World Americanists such as Delius, Weill, and Korngold. "It is to the poor that I turn for musical greatness," he said; he himself was "the son of poor parents and was reared in an atmosphere of struggle." Given his love of folklore and his lifelong fight against second-class citizenship, it is not surprising that he was deeply touched by the art of Harry T. Burleigh, who was attending the conservatory, and Mrs. Thurber's other African-American scholarship students. The elegant curve and soulful sensibility of their singing imprinted his musical language for the rest of his life.
Dvorák's assertions, as Henry Krehbiel noted in the New York Daily Tribune in 1894, caused "much consternation." They were not only radical but premature, coming a decade before the manifesto on black folk music in W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk. Suddenly a loud, ugly noise rose forth from the New York and Boston press, ranging from the "laughter of the skeptics," who claimed there was nothing American in the symphony, to a grudging admission that an insignificant scrap or two of black or Indian music might lie buried in the work. The subtext of both reactions was a horror over even the possibility of such music inspiring a major symphony of such extraordinary popularity.
The permutations of these arguments were endless. Some (such as Anton Seidl, the visionary Wagnerian who premiered the New World) claimed that the work contained "pure Indian music"; others (such as William Foster Anthorp) wrote that it contained actual black plantation tunes; Victor Herbert, another Thurber student, claimed it was based on melodies sung to Dvorák by Burleigh and Dvorák's other black pupils at the conservatory. The latter conjecture was validated by Dvorák himself, who confirmed that much of his research into African-American music was delightfully firsthand.
The loudest group denied any Americanness. Most vehement was the distinguished music and art critic James Huneker: " Dvorák's is an American symphony: is it? Themes from negro melodies; composed by a Bohemian; conducted by a Hungarian and played by Germans in a hall built by a Scotchman. About one third of the audience were Americans and so were the critics. All the rest of it was anything but Americanand that is just as it should be." By mid-twentieth century, as H. L. Mencken pointed out, the group claiming that the New World was just another Czech work was in the ascendancy. And it has remained so. Music-appreciation books are adamant on the subject: Beethoven or Bust denounces the idea of Americanness in the symphony as nonsense; the Vintage Guide to Classical Music argues that the symphony is "one of the greatest manifestations of the Czech/Bohemian spirit."
To a remarkable extent, the terms of the current debate remain what they were in late nineteenth century, with scholars such as Michael Beckerman and David Beveridge weighing in on the American side, or at least on the side of the New World representing something new. A recent controversy focuses on Dvorák's increasing use of pentatonic scales, drone basses, and other open sounds during his American period. Are these harmonies black? Are they Indian? Or are they, as markers of the exotic, simply recycled Bohemianisms?
What is odd about these torturous questions and dissections is that Dvorák clarified the entire matter from the beginning, in admirably clear language. As early as 1892, after his revelatory summer in Spillville among Czech immigrants and Kickapoo Indians, he told the Chicago Tribune that his method was to study black, Creole, and other indigenous melodies until he became "thoroughly imbued with their characteristics" and was "able to make a musical picture in keeping with and partaking of those characteristics." The ultimate goal was to "grasp the essence and vitality of the subject" and re-create that essence in his own themes.
Just to be sure no one missed the point, he told the New York Herald on December 15, 1893, the day before the New World premiered, that he composed only in the spirit of black and Indian music: "I have not actually used any of the melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the music." Dvorák became understandably irritated that his many statements on the subject were misread or ignored. With uncharacteristic grumpiness, he stated that the whole notion of his using authentic quoted material was "nonsense" and "a lie."
Dvorák's own words therefore render much of the debate irrelevant. Clearly, the music from his experiences in New York and Iowa was not meant to be authentically American (whatever that means), or even an approximation thereof. It was music "imbued" by the spirit and essence of American folk art; it was a poetic vision of the New World, much like his vision of East European folk music, which also captured the spirit of folk music but eschewed actual quotation. Dvorák like Delius and unlike Smetana and Ivescreated his own folk sounds; he was a late Romantic in search of new inspiration, not an ethnomusicologist or a collagist.
In fact, the entire question of authenticity was irrelevant to Dvorák. In his vigorous article for Harper's in February 1895, his final say on the subject, he expressed great puzzlement not only over the obsession with American authenticity but over wranglings about whether Negro music originated in Africa or America. He made his own antiliteralism impulses perfectly clear: "Whether the original songs which must have inspired the composers came from Africa or originated on the plantations matters as little as whether Shakespeare invented his own plots or borrowed them from others. The thing to rejoice over is that such lovely songs exist and are sung at the present day. I, for one, am delighted by them."
But rejoicing was the last thing on the minds of squabbling Americanists; the question of who invented the plots was very much the issue. (In academic quarrels, plot displaces poetry every time.) The debate over the Americanness or lack thereof in Dvorák and the need to keep the debate aliveclearly says more about Americans' precarious sense of identity than it does about Dvorák. The analogy of Shakespeare and his sources demonstrates that Dvorák understood precisely what his art was about: like Shakespeare, he borrowed the bare bones of older plotsthe songs of black folkand re-created them with his own poetry.
Dvorák and his critics raised the question still being asked: Just what is American music? As a European more interested in imaginative art than in ethnomusicology (though he probably knew more about he latter than his adversaries), Dvorák had the luxury of not needing to provide an answer. He did, however, change the nature of the debate, one that continues to have a peculiarly ugly tone. A recent example is Richard Taruskin's 1993 claim in the New York Times that Dvorák generated an "ersatz" nationalism that led to such unfortunate things as the "ingratiating white-bread-of-the-prairie idiom" of Aaron Coplanda "left-leaning homosexual Jew from Brooklyn." Worse, Dvorák inaugurated a "critical ethnic cleansing by which the legitimacy of American composers who do not choose to don a Stetson or grow an Afro can be impugned."
In fact, as the Harper's article makes clear, Dvorák had an affinity for black songs, but he championed all folk music, whatever the hair or hat style; he embraced "all the races that are commingled in the this great country," including the "plaintive ditties of the homesick German or Norwegian." Nonetheless, the Taruskin diatribe is instructive as the latest, most unpleasant example of an ideology that views Dvorák as a corrupter of American culture who forced the music of lowlifes and ruffians down America's throat.
From the beginning, finicky arguments about authenticity barely concealed this larger anxiety and outrage over Dvorák's embrace of African-American music. James Creelman, writing in 1894, found Dvorák's enthusiasm for black music "almost pathetic. I fear that he does not yet appreciate the limitations of the negro race.... It will take many generations of culture to develop their intellects to the point of appreciating the higher and larger forms of music. Meanwhile they may serve as hewers of wood and carriers of water to the white race." The viciousness of these white supremacist attacks was matched only by their incoherence. Huneker, for example, ridiculed as false the entire notion of American influences in the symphony, whether black or otherwisethen went on to denounce the African-American influence anyway: "If we are to have true American music it will not stem from 'darky' roots, especially as the most original music of that kind thus far written is by Stephen Foster, a white man. The influence of Dvorák's American music has been evil; ragtime is the popular pabulum now. I hardly need add that the negro is not the original race of our country. And ragtime is only rhythmic motion, not music."
These rantings, which came from two of Dvorák's admirers, typified defenders of the symphonic status quo desperate to discredit the basis, if not the actual music, of Dvorák's symphony. His challenge was a threat precisely because he was a European. It was to European models, after all, that Americans turned for their musical guidance, in part to avoid the "evil" influence of genres such as ragtime (always the most demonized form of black music)but then along came a European opening the gates and letting in the savages. Dvorák's brief on behalf of black music anticipated DuBois's and Gershwin's and was infinitely more shocking. DuBois, after all, was black, and Gershwin was a Jew (and, like Copland, a left-leaning one at that). But Dvorák should have known better. Most threatening of all to white supremacists was Dvorák's fame. He was the most celebrated composer of his time, a point we tend to forget, but one that was all too clear to Creelman & Co.: "It is not too much to say," wrote Creelman, "that Dvorák is the foremost living composer, and that his word carries more authority than that of any contemporary."
Dvorák's earnestness and naiveté were ironic attributes in this incendiary situation. For better or worse, he is the most nonironic of the great composers, a straight talker, with none of the irony or scathing wit of a Berlioz or a Copland. He fell in love with black spirituals immediately upon hearing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and other hymns sung by Harry Burleigh and could not understand the hysteria caused by his promotion of them. When he spoke on the record of his discoveries, he was exuberant and to the point, which drove his critics to increasing extremes of nit-picking hostility. To this day scholars insist that Dvorák, in the words of Adrienne Fried Block, "changed his story about the sources of inspiration for the New World," asserting first that they were black, then that they were Indian as well, and, finally, in Harper's "tacitly" admitting that America contained commingled folk sources. But Dvorák's statements are by no means mutually exclusive; his sense of folk sources evolved, as one would expect, in a gradual process of discovery. And nowhere in the Harper's piece does he take back his judgment about the primacy of black music. Indeed, he reasserts it.
Again, this was always an aesthetic verdict: Dvorák never said that black music was the only folk tradition, only that, to his heart and mind, it was the most beautiful, noble, and fruitful. In a revealing grace note, he added that "plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the Atlantic. ... This seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans." This is Dvorák at his most cheerfully blunt: Americans really know their best music is black, they just don't want to admit it.
Dvorák himself did not want to admit the tragic centrality of race in American culture and politics. As Leon Botstein points out, he admired America because of its lack of a common culture: in America everyone was exotic. For once, it made no difference that he was a Bohemian because everybody was "the other." That, at least, was the myth. The special hatred reserved for black people was something he had not seen firsthand.
This is not to say that all the consternation Dvorák caused is attributable to racism alone. The disturbance was much broader. Genteel America was insecure and befuddled not only about the incursions of black music but about musical identity in general, a phenomenon unintentionally summarized by tastemaker James Huneker's characterization, without irony, of Edward MacDowell as "our most truly native composer." Despite all the passionate manifestos by Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, and other writers about the need for nonimitative American art, the best that the musical intelligentsia could come up with was MacDowell.
Like anyone else, Americans wanted to define their own culture, and they resented a foreigner doing it for them. The resentment is still there, as reflected in the statement of a commentator in 1991 that Dvorák was "unfamiliar with the substantial number of talented American composers who had been getting along quite welland even anticipating his approaches years before his music was known here." The subtext is clear: we Americans were doing quite well until this overrated foreigner came along. This was an issue Dvorák understood: his bold assertions about the mortifying lack of true American music (the bland banalities of MacDowell, Chadwick, and others notwithstanding) indicate that this was one land mine he was prepared to walk into.
As it turned out, the establishment had a great deal to be anxious about. The Dvorák revolution was spectacularly successful, not only with the American public but with American music in general. Numerous music historians (including hostile ones like Taruskin) credit him with starting a line that led to the respectability of jazz and the American idioms of Gershwin and Copland. Dvorák, after all, taught Rubin Goldmark, who in turn taught Gershwin, Ellington, and Copland. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook, two of Dvorák's black students, were directly influenced by him, as he was by them; the next generation of black composers drew on his theories of the centrality of African-American music as well. Indeed, the more scholars celebrating the 1993 Dvorák centennial looked into the matter, the more they discovered just how long his "long American reach" really is.
Anxiety about American musical identity has therefore resulted in a strange ambivalence: Dvorák is credited with everything and nothing. There is nothing American about the New World Symphony, yet everything can be traced to it. What is overlooked, ironically, is that Dvorák was profoundly influenced by America in the first place. The depth of this influence is a testament to the potency of American culture, not its fragility, no matter how difficult that chaotic culture is to pin down or define. As we shall see in this book, the cultural and literary energies that inspired Dvorák were destined to transform other Europeans as well.
Dvorák himself was clear about the American influence. Writing a Czech friend during his composition of the New World, he asserted that "I should never have written the symphony 'just so' if I hadn't seen America." He defined the symphony as "an endeavor to portray characteristics, such as are distinctly American." Once we clear away the debris of racial politics and anxieties about identity, we see that his initial immersion in black American music had a broadening, humanizing effect, opening a subjective stream of impressions: the "penetrating quality" of New York newsboys selling papers on the streets; the "American color" and serene atmosphere of Spillville and Minnehaha Falls, where Dvorák took his visiting family; the "capacity for enthusiasm of most Americans" that mirrored his own upbeat spirits. We shall see the same phenomenon in the black-inspired music of Delius: the emotional power of black music was a catalyst that opened the composer to other American stimuli.
American critics, who initially praised the symphony while quarreling over its sources, eventually began attacking it precisely because of this unruly mulitfariousness. Writing in the Baltimore Sun in the 1920s, H. L. Mencken remarked that "a fashion of sniffing at it has grown up among the musical pundits." And the sniffing continued throughout most of the century. Parallel to all the caveats about authenticity emerged complaints about the symphony's artistic status. Irritated by the work's immense and continuing popularity, compared to what they regard as the more tightly written Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, highbrow critics as well as music-appreciation middlebrows pronounced the New World to be structurally inferior, its popularity undeserved. But the sprawling, episodic structure of the piece, its themes spilling over from one movement to another, perfectly embodies the uncontainable exuberance and melodic richness of the material. As Mencken points out in his passionate defense of the symphony, enjoyment of the New World necessitates submission of its "rush of sounds," its atmosphere of "frank savagery"a surrender "platitudinous" critics are incapable of. As for the allegedly deficient structure, the first movement offers three subjects that "for all their barbaric color are still somewhat terse and austerethat is, for Dvorák and their working out is carried on with a relentlessness the he seldom shows anywhere else." Mencken asserted that this symphony actually showed "better discipline" than Dvorák's earlier ones. Its illusion of black-inspired spontaneity, its "barbarous syncopated" emotionality, hides its artfulness: "The thing goes with a rush that conceals its ingenuity of design and execution."
That Mencken, hardly a paragon of racial tolerance, was one of the strongest defenders of the symphony among American intellectuals is a revealing and pathetic commentary. As usual, racism was more a personal flaw than a professional behavior: in this article, he asserts that the work is, paradoxically, a real "American symphony" by "a Bohemian of the Bohemians" and that virtually all of it can be traced to the Jubilee Songs and the "wailing spirit of Negro music." Indeed, Mencken went overboard in his sightings from the Jubilee Songs, but he was one of the first Americans to get it right about the essential quality and significance of the symphony.
The frankness, openness, ecstatic rush, and "unbroken clarity" cited by Menckenall set against wailing melancholycharacterized not only this symphony but eventually the America-inspired works of Dvorák's European colleagues. Mencken apparently did not know about the Hiawatha influence on the symphony, but he pinned down its mixture of exuberance and nostalgia. Among other things, it is this emotional complexity, this excitement about the New World tempered by nostalgia for the Old, that gives the New World Symphony its unique tension. The most famous case in point is the big tune for English horn in the Largo: this haunting melody, based on the spirit and shape of black hymnody, became a spiritual called "Goin' Home," a perfect metaphor for Dvorák's nostalgia for his homeland. Dvorák thus borrowed from black music and gave back to it in equal measure, creating a new folk music. He invented his own New World as he absorbed the one around him.
These characteristics defined most of Dvorák's other American works as well, including the charming Violin-Piano Sonata written for his children when they visited him in New York, its second movement a tone painting of Minnehaha Falls; the justly famous American String Quartet, with its open, uncluttered string sonorities, composed at Spillville in a three-day burst of inspiration; the peculiarly neglected E-flat Quintet, also from the Spillville summer, with its magical bird and insect sounds and its "musical picture," in the composer's words, of plantation and Creole tunes; the Suite and Humoresques for piano, with their exotic pentatonic harmonies and unpredictable melodic turns; the heartrending Biblical Songs, written in a triple conjunction of grief over the deaths of Dvorák's friend Tchaikovsky, his champion Hans von Bülow, and his father, news of whose terminal illness he received after launching the cycle. Despite their Czech text, even the Songs have strong overtones of the black spiritual. Rarities from Dvorák's American period continue to be revived, including the orchestral version of the Suite and an homage to Stephen Foster in the form of a choral setting of "Old Folks at Home," a work exemplifying Dvorák's keen interest in every aspect of American folk song.
Aside from the symphony, the most epic piece from Dvorák's American period is the Cello Concerto. Because this magnificent work has no American label and was written at the end of his New York sojourn, it is often deemed the most un-American of Dvorák's Americana. Yet it was composed in New York and directly influenced by another New World European: the Irish-born, German-trained Victor Herbert, a Thurber protégé who eventually headed the conservatory. Dvorák's concerto has an openness, expansiveness, and distinctive narrative quality reminiscent of the Ninth Symphony. It also has a cyclic structure similar to both the symphony and Herbert's cello concerto. That it eschews pentatonicisms and other primitive markers matters little: Dvorák's style had changed internally by the time he wrote the concerto; he no longer needed overt musical symbols from spirituals or what he called the sadness of prairies.
The genesis of the concerto was direct, its composition swift. Dvorák heard Herbert's Cello Concerto no. 2 at Carnegie Hall in a Philharmonic concert conducted by Anton Seidl and was so moved by it that he rushed backstage after the performance and embraced its composer. Directly inspired by Herbert's concerto, Dvorák wrote his own Cello Concerto in only three months. It is not surprising that he would have been taken by Herbert's concerto. Like Dvorák, Herbert was a European composer with a seemingly inexhaustible lyric gift, and he, too, loved American culture and was determined to make the most of it. His famous operettas were still before him, but he had composed an orchestral Vision of Columbus the year before the concerto, his counterpart to Dvorák's American Flag.
These New World Concertos have striking similarities, at least on the surface. Both begin with somber motifs that seem to signify their Old World origins, but they soon shed their weight. The slow movement of Herbert's concerto has an enchanted New World airiness and innocence far removed from his Teutonic training; the remarkable delicacy of Dvorák's slow movement may well have been inspired by its example. In both works, the traditional heaviness of the cello disappears, allowing the instrument to soar into the open air. By the end of the Herbert, the cello has taken on a feathery lightness that makes it sound like a wind instrument. Dvorák's scoring is equally transparent, but his slow movement carries a personal burden of sadness: it was written as a musical love letter to his sister-in-law, Josephina, the secret love of his life, who sent him a letter describing her rapidly disintegrating health just before he began the movement. Dvorák's concerto certainly cuts deeper than Herbert's, but it shares its open-air exuberance, its emotional directness, and its feeling of spontaneity.
When Dvorák returned to Prague in 1894, he carried at least the ghost of his new American sensibility with him. In the symphonic poem "The Wild Dove," for example, the dreamlike conclusion recalls the Largo of the Ninth Symphony. On one occasion, the New World was revisited in a literal way: Dvorák composed a new, more expansive ending to the Cello Concerto upon hearing of Josephina's death in 1895, one that again invoked the New World Symphony in its cyclical nostalgia and epic grandeur.
It is this interaction between two worlds that defines New World music. Much of the output of Dvorák's American disciples who followed his lead and mined black spiritualsGoldmark, Loomis, and Cook, for exampleis oddly literal-minded by comparison. But the double perspective of a European in the New World created a uniquely productive tension and complexity, that of New World energy combined with Old World sophistication, of jauntiness mingled with homesickness.