Antonín Dvořák and America

This year on 16 December is the 125th anniversary of the world premiere of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” at Carnegie Hall. That was the first work Dvořák began composing in the USA, and he also completed it there. The last work that Dvořák composed during his stay in America was his Cello Concerto. The Czech composer wrote two of his most famous works while in America, and he was enchanted by the country, but after two and a half years, he had also begun to miss his children and his homeland. In the New World Symphony and the Cello Concerto, it is apparent that Dvořák’s music speaks clearly even to those who lack knowledge of the composer’s private life and biographical data.


Of his sixty-four years of life, Dvořák spent just thirty months in America. That period was nonetheless the climax of his career as a composer: his fame had truly spread to the entire Western world. In the spring of 1891, Jeanette Thurber, the president of the National Conservatory of Music of America, invited Antonín Dvořák to New York. Dvořák was to become the director of the conservatory and to conduct a few concerts, and his annual salary was to be 15,000 dollars (today that would be ca. 435,000 dollars). Dvořák hesitated, although the money being offered was excellent. Jeanette Thurber urged him persistently, however, and in June 1891 the composer received a draft contract. Dvořák’s objections gradually subsided, and they disappeared completely after he met Jeanette Thurber in person in London. Dvořák began to look forward to New York and to America’s Bohemians.


He departed on his journey in the autumn of 1892 together with his wife Anna, two of their children, and the Czech-American Josef Kovařík, who was to serve as Dvořák’s guide at the beginning. He first arrived on American soil on 27 September 1892. Jeanette Thurber took great pains to secure plenty of advance publicity of Dvořák’s arrival in America. Articles appeared in the newspapers about the composer’s life and works, and the fact that Dvořák had worked his own way up from poverty to the position of a world-famous composer attracted a great deal of attention. The expectation was that he would be able to bring American music to the consciousness of audiences worldwide in the way that he had already succeed in doing with Czech music.

Dvořák was thrilled with New York, a modern metropolis, and grandiose celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America were underway at the time. Most importantly, of course, Dvořák began teaching at the conservatory. He liked his talented students there, and he made sure that African Americans were also accepted for study. Dvořák was convinced that it should be from their music that American musical culture would emerge – and it later turned out that he was right, at least as far as jazz is concerned. Dvořák also drew inspiration for his New World Symphony from his study of Negro songs. As he himself put it, he did not use any specific songs in it, but he worked their characteristic features into his own music. Dvořák also composed his most famous chamber work in America, the String Quartet No. 12 (the “American Quartet”). He composed it on summer holiday in 1893 in Spillville, Iowa, a town inhabited by descendants of Czech emigrants.


Antonín Dvořák departed from America definitively in April 1895. The country was undergoing a severe financial crisis, and the conservatory was behind with the payment of salaries. More than anything, of course, Dvořák was homesick – he was always happiest at home with his family.


The end of Dvořák’s stay in America and his return to Bohemia found musical expression in his Cello Concerto. Dvořák finished the first version while still in New York, and he did not revise it into its final form until he arrived home. One of the world’s most famous concertos still connects Dvořák’s America with his Czech homeland.