Author: Christoph Vratz
ca. 4 minutes

On the Brooklyn Bridge. Three people can be recognised.
New York, Brooklyn Bridge | Picture: Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde

Antonín Dvořák composed the Symphony “From the New World”, the “American” Suite, the “American” Quartet and many other works during his two-and-a-half-year stay in America. It was an ambivalent time for the composer: characterized by triumphs, enthusiasm about new impressions, but also yearning for his Bohemian homeland.

It was already late afternoon when the ship’s sirens howled around 4:30 pm. The steamship Saale, which had raised anchor nine days earlier in Bremerhaven, reached New York. Lively activity began on board; bags and trunks were unloaded, people scurried around in confusion. Mr. Santon, secretary of the National Conservatory of Music, was already waiting ashore. He had come to welcome a guest to the “new world”: Antonín Dvořák. Santon guided him through the customs inspection and brought him to the Clarendon Hotel, where a room – with a grand piano – was reserved for Dvořák. It was 26 September 1892, a Monday.

“I still remember clearly how stubbornly Father resisted accepting this position . . ., even when they offered him twice as much money,” Dvořák’s son, Otakar, recalled later. His salary was actually increased again, and Dvořák finally agreed to accept the position as director of the conservatory in New York. A European, of all people, was to free the Americans from European influences in art music and help them develop a style that would establish an identity of their own – according to the contract.

“As soon as I arrived, the next day all the local newspapers . . . wrote a great deal and enthusiastically about me, welcomed me as the greatest composer in the world,” Dvořák wrote. Expectations were high; the contract began on 1 October and ran (initially) for two years. By then Dvořák was 51 years old. “The Americans expect great things of me. I am to show them the way into the Promised Land, the realm of a new, independent art, in short, a national style of music!”

A European, of all people, was to free the Americans from European influences in music.

After around four weeks, Dvořák, his wife and two of his children moved to new lodgings on East 17th Street. It was a relatively quiet house, for the noise of the big city was suspicious to Dvořák. He picked out a grand piano at Steinway, which was already delivered half an hour later. Dvořák was also to conduct a concert of his own works with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra soon. Again he agreed.

This American intermezzo lasted around three years and was characterized by intensive learning and high productivity. His curiosity made Dvořák open to the study of spirituals and Native American melodies; he listened intently to a country whose mentality was alien to him at first and to souls whose musicality attracted him.

He first composed a Te Deum on commission – for the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America – which had its premiere during the year he arrived. The cantata The American Flag was also written for this occasion. In January 1893 Dvořák wrote to a friend: “And now I am working on a new symphony (E minor). It appears that American soil will have a beneficial effect on my mind.” His announcement that people would “hear more about” the new symphony would prove to be true.

But first, Dvořák travelled to Spillville, a rural idyll in Iowa, during the summer of 1893. It had been founded by a Bavarian named Spielmann and was 350 kilometres west of Chicago, surrounded by fields and inhabited almost exclusively by Czech emigrants. Dvořák, an enthusiastic railway fan, travelled by train: “We were there in 36 hours with the express train.” When he arrived there, he immediately felt at home: “I played the organ in the little church often and with pleasure – the grannies were very happy to hear our beautiful Bohemian hymns again after so many years.”

His son recounted: “There were good Czech people here, an organ in the church, the Turkey River, where he [his father] particularly liked to go for a walk; birds that he had not heard for so long sang there, and even pigeons, his old love, were not lacking.” Dvořák was happy, because his other four children had also arrived from Europe in the meantime. The family was finally complete again.

Dvořák was bubbling with ideas; he sketched his “American” Quartet in three days.

In contrast to the hectic atmosphere of New York, Antonín Dvořák especially enjoyed the peace and quiet here – and the fact that he was not constantly asked about his life as a musician. The only thing missing was a piano. In all of Spillville there was only one, and it was in poor condition. But it was refurbished and tuned for Dvořák and brought to his house. Until then, he made do with a harmonium, since he was working on a new work again by then, a string quartet. His son Otakar wrote: “I remember how father . . . enjoyed listening to the delicate sounds of nature in complete silence . . . . We wanted to leave him to his thoughts and went fishing. Father’s inspirations came faster than we were finished with our preparations, however. . . . The motifs for his new quartet occurred to him . . . on the banks of the Turkey River. . . . Father brought the complete structure of a movement back from the river, whereas I returned empty-handed.”

Dvořák was bubbling with ideas. He needed only three days for the sketches for the entire quartet! “Finished 10 June 1893 – Spillville. I am pleased. It went quickly.” He would “never have written . . . just so if I hadn’t seen America,” Dvořák wrote later. He emphasized the fact that he had composed all the melodies himself: “I have only written in the spirit of these American folk songs.”

The Ninth Symphony had long since been completed by then. It was performed publicly for the first time in December 1893. Anton Seidl conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

The next day the New York Herald reported: “The famous Czech composer would certainly not be easily satisfied, but . . . after the second movement he was given an enthusiastic ovation. Storms of applause resounded from all sides. . . .

From all over the hall there were cries of: ‘Dvořák! Dvořák!’ . . . Dr. Dvořák, hands trembling with emotion, indicated his thanks to Mr. Seidl, the orchestra, and the audience, whereupon he disappeared into the background while the symphony continued. After the conclusion of the work he was called for with stormy insistence. He bowed again and again.”

With the Symphony “From the New World”, Dvořák achieved a triumph that influenced his entire stay in the US.

This triumph influenced the rest of Dvořák’s time in America. He composed other new works, including the “American” Suite in A major: first, works for piano, then for orchestra, and later the Cello Concerto. But, as much as Dvořák enjoyed the recognition and was pleased that his contact at the Conservatory was extended, he had not forgotten his homeland. He travelled to Europe for the holidays in May of 1894 and did not return to New York again until the evening of 25 October. The Conservatory again offered to extend his contract, but this time he declined. His thoughts were with his children who had remained at home.

Antonín Dvořák left the American continent on 18 April 1895, happy and famous. Eleven days later he was in Bohemia, his home. He brought a beautiful house in Prague with his generous salary and named it “Villa America”. He never lived in it, however. Today it houses a Dvořák museum.