Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) is known as one of the leading composers of Czech national music.
His music is infused with the spirit of Bohemian folk song and dance.
Dvorak rarely quoted actual folk melodies but instead his works have a folk quality. In other words, they remind you of folk music that is cheerful and yet direct in nature.
In 1892 Dvorak became the Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York where he lived and worked for 3 years.
Similar to Willa Cather’s sojourn in Nebraska, Dvorak learns about the American heartland on his summer holidays in Iowa where there is a large community of Czech immigrants.
He is very interested in the American folk music of African American Spirituals. He thought of these songs as “the natural voice of a free and great nation.”
Dvorak captures the Bohemian and American spirit in one piece of music.
The Bohemian spirit is personified by an uninhibited love of music and dance that portrays them living their lives to the fullest.
They are proud people that work hard and play hard.
One could say they are more sensual in how they perceive the world around them because they enjoy the simple pleasures.
Dvorak with his family and friends as they arrive in New York in 1893. Wife Anna, Son Antonin, Friend Saidie Siebert and Josef Jan Korvarik and Sadie’s mother, daughter Otillie, Antonin Dvorak.
The Anglo-Germanic background is much more restrained and reserved about expressing emotions. Beauty is always more of an intellectual beauty.
Dvorak is fascinated with the American spirit he experiences in the New World. He loves the ideas of freedom, individualism and how the limitless possibilities meet the untamed land. In his music he perfectly blends wild nature of the American landscape with the Bohemian spirit.
Dvorak demonstrates the contrast by using a big brass section that produces a very large and grand theme. “This is America!” The brass proclaim “fasten your set belts you are in for one exciting ride”
The woodwinds represent the more calm, peaceful and serene moments. At times they bring the feeling of great homesickness into the story. But not for long, as Dvorak scores an undercurrent of strings that are ready to burst forth at any moment.
Statue of Antonin Dvorak, Stuyvesant Square in Manhattan, New York City.
With this work, Dvorak captures our imagination and fills us with the dreams and hopes of the immigrant people of his time. He does this not through a painting or telling of a story but he does this through music.
With the New World Symphony, Dvorak has captured the feeling of America in 1893 and placed it in a time capsule so that we can relive all the hopes and dreams and heartache of those early Americans.
As you do the activities and listen to the concert of the New York Philharmonic Young Person’s concerts, remember that Dvorak was the original. This music sprang from his heart long before John Williams’ Star Wars Themes and Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven. His great New World Symphony has always been one of my most favorite pieces of music and I hope you will enjoy it too!
Questions to consider:
- What did you find surprising, interesting or even touching about the activities the New York Philharmonic created with their artists teachers? How did their actives open your eyes and prepare you for the concert?
2. What life experience does this music remind you? This can be a book, a movie, maybe a trip, a friend or life story. (But it can not be where you think you have heard this music before. Try to dig deeper than that:)
3. How did experiencing the book of “My Antonia” help you connect to the music of Dvorak?