Siouxland Observer


Saturday, June 30, 2018

American Music: The 4th of July

Tubas grunt like a buffalo.  But listening to The New World Symphony, or even watching a video, the instrument is difficult to ferret out, and much like a buffalo’s mating call, takes patience and timing to properly locate, much like Dvořák's legacy as America's national music founder.

Listen to what what Magus Alex said regarding Antonín Dvořák’s music (found in a public comment section on YouTube): The genius of this musician is the property of the WORLD.  What a performance!  His music washes away a dirty scum of political lies.  High human feelings cleanse us, open our eyes to the true world.

Burleigh was encouraged to preserve these songs in his own arrangements, and their themes can be heard in Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

He wrote this in response to Dvořák’s Concerto in B minor Op. 104, which according to the Encyclopedia Britannica is Dvořák’s only composition that can safely be called a classic, but implied it was true for the composer's music in general.  He expressed his feeling on the subject in his native tongue:

“Гений этого музыканта является достоянием МИРА. Какое исполнение! Его музыка смывает грязную пену политической лжи. Высокие человеческие чувства очищают нас, открывают глаза на истинный мир.”

But is Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World, really the property of the world, or can America claim it?  Is it our gift to the world, or just a rewrite from the old one?  If America's music is in it, and the symphony is something other than the work product of Dvořák's years at the Conservatory, how did he find it?

According to, Dvořák stated on repeated occasions that it was necessary to establish an American national school of music founded on African American folk music.  If fact, he said as much:

“I am of the opinion that African American songs can provide a secure foundation for a new national school of music,” the Czech composer wrote, “and I have arrived at the conviction that the young musicians here merely require prudent direction, earnest application, encouragement and the support of the public in order to co-create a new music school.”

Historically, however, there's not a lot to go on.  Dvořák himself said of his most famous symphony that the music came from his studies, and not directly from any particular work (although Turkey in the Straw is identifiable to at least one listener).

And then there's that pesky “revisionism.”  Did a man from the 19th Century actually call works from men of color (music that Randy Harriman referred to in an article as “Negro melodies”) African American songs?

Harriman reported in the Austin American-Statesman November 7, 2004, that conductor Gunther Schuller, a participant at an event commemorating Dvořák at the University of Texas, and a noted proponent of American music, found little American influence in Dvořák's From the New World, although said a bass line at the end of the symphony “came right out of Shortnin' Bread.”

However, in a video on YouTube, a singer who valued spirituals adapted from old slave songs, Harry T. Burleigh, an African American studying at the National Conservatory of Music, is said to have developed a friendship with Dvořák, and spent countless hours “recalling, and performing, the African American spirituals he had learned from his grandfather.”

Burleigh was encouraged to preserve these songs in his own arrangements, according to the narrator, and their themes can be heard in Dvořák’s New World Symphony. 

Before he came to America, Dvorak wrote a friend that he planned to leave the Conservatory at the end of May for a summer holiday in Bohemia.  He would return mid-September, he said, in time to teach his class that fall.

However, according to the The New York TimesJosef Kovarik, his secretary, convinced him that if he traveled not east across the ocean, but west to the rolling green hills of northeast Iowa, he would find the people he was looking for in Spillville, Iowa.  And so he went to Spillville, carrying his unfinished symphony along with him.

That symphony has created a cottage industry of guesses about its melodies.  One writer, Russell Florence Jr., hears in the symphony's first moment Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and it might be in there somewhere, just before Turkey in the Straw — or perhaps sunrise on the farm — it's really anyone's guess.

Like many symphony orchestras before it, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra tried to analyze the composition during a special night out at the symphony.  Maestro Neal Gittleman, according to Florence, held a question and answer before he took on Dvořák.  He held a Q&A during the intermission, said the Dayton Daily News, which was followed by a Graeter's Ice Cream Social (a delicious and yummy ice-cream confectioner, no doubt).

But again, is Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in the symphony?  A reporter who listened to The Plantation Singers, and then Dvořák, sort of maybe heard it, but all The New York Times will say is “… the English horn solo in the Largo movement of the New World Symphony is said to emulate the voice of Dvořák's pupil Harry T. Burleigh, who sang plantation songs and Stephen Foster favorites to his teacher.”

Not to get too picky here, but isn't that kind of like comparing a tuba to a buffalo's matting call?

But Dvořák was heavily influenced by Native American culture.  The New York Philharmonic, in an exceptional little booklet for children (and all of us), said he was influenced by the Oglala Sioux, Iroquois, and Kickapoo people.

It's true, Dvořák's only real contact with authentic Native American culture seems to have come from attending Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and a Kickapoo Medicine Company show.  But he did study native culture — if only in poetry.  Michael Beckerman, in his exceptional article, Henry Krehbiel, Antonin Dvořák, and the Symphony “From the New World”, wrote: “If there is anything Indian about Mr. Dvořák's symphony it is only the mood inspired by the contemplation of Indian legend and romance …”.

And the New York Philharmonic picks up on this in The New World Symphony: In Search of an American Voice, which explores how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poetry may have influenced Dvořák.  In fact, Beckerman's paper, states many scholars believe the Largo, the symphony's second movement, is somehow related to Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha.