Anton Dvorak and the Fight For An American Musical Culture

by Dennis Speed

Printed in the American Almanac, September, 1993


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The Schiller Institute is sponsoring a concert at Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall on August 27. Entitled, ``A Musical Celebration of the Struggle To Secure the Inalienable Rights of Man,'' this concert will be one of several steps in a fight to launch a renaissance in the practice of classical culture in the United States.

That objective is an eminently urgent one. America is on the verge of losing its soul, and all of its citizens feel that. The very question of the meaning of ``Judaeo-Christian civilization'' begs to be answered in the face of a nation seemingly on the verge of madness. Yet the tools to defeat this madness exist. They are the tools of the great art-songs of Europe and American spirituals, discussed in a great dialogue between the last of the practitioners of classical musical composition of Europe and their students in the New World.

That dialogue, aborted by racism and ignorance, is being renewed today. Every child has the right to sing, as God intended him to, and his right must be ``seized from the heavens'' themselves, if America is to have a chance to survive. No economic program, no political tactic, no march, no demonstration, no ``this here deal,'' will have as much effect, as asserting the inalienable right to sing, at the right pitch, in the right way, for the right purpose.

And what is that purpose? It is said, that when Johann Sebastian Bach was once asked why he composed as he did, without pausing, he replied, ``Why, for the greater glory of God.'' This is what the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorák believed, and that is why he was able to identify the African-American spiritual as the potential basis for what he termed an ``American school''--an American contribution--to classical culture.


Dvorak vs. Mapplethorpe

Two years ago, at 237 East 17th Street in NewYork City, there was a plaque over the doorway. It had been dedicated almost exactly 50 years earlier, by the mayor of New York, Fiorello Laguardia, Jan Masaryk, the head of the Czech government-in-exile, and several of Dvorak's students, including the African-American singer Harry Burleigh, Dvorák's copyist, a soloist in several of Dvorák's concerts, and one of his closest collaborators. It read:

``In memory of Dvorak's 100th birthday and for future generations of free Czecho-Slovakia the grateful government caused this inscription to be erected on Dec. 13, 1941. Longing for his Czech home, yet happily inspired by the freedom of the American life, he wrote here among other works the New World Symphony, Biblical Songs, the 'Cello Concerto. The famous Czech composer, Antonin Dvorák, 1841-1904, lived in this house from 1892 until 1895.''

Today, that house has been demolished, despite attempts by several of the world's most prominent citizens to preserve it. Vaclav Havel, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, baritone William Warfield, the Archbishop of Prague, neighborhood associations, etc., were no match for Beth Israel Medical Center, which had purchased the property in 1989. An AIDS medical facility will be dedicated on the site, named after another ``artist''--Robert Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe's art work consists of photographs, like that of a model, dressed as Christ, sitting in urine. Some people consider whether one thinks of these photographs as ``art'' to be a matter of ``taste.'' In any case, Robert Mapplethorpe's name will replace that of Dvorak over the new doorway at 237 East 17th Street.

The New York Times had advocated the demolition of the house in an editorial called ``Dvorak Doesn't Live Here Anymore.'' Robert Mapplethorpe never lived there either, however. Music critic Brendan Gill, in a reply to the Times, asked, ``Mozart doesn't live in Salzburg any more: should the house in which he lived be torn down?... You pretend to fear the city will be `dotted with shrines because a celebrity passed through.' Is Dvorak to you merely a celebrity? Is three years passing through?''

Question: Could it be, that there might be people that did not wish anyone to remember what Dvorak and the National Conservatory of Music, now defunct, accomplished in New York, in a little over three years? Would people be surprised to learn, that, in fact, Dvorak was brought to the United States, not to direct a music school based in New York, but to direct an American Conservatory, voted into law one year earlier by the Congress of the United States, of which the New York Conservatory was the temporary headquarters?

``The National Conservatory of Music of America proposes to enlarge its sphere of usefulness by adding to its departments a branch for the instruction in music of colored pupils of talent, largely with the view of forming colored professors of merit.... Tuition will be furnished to students of exceptional talent free of charge. Two young but efficient colored pupils have already been engaged as teachers, and others will be secured....

``Dr. Antonin Dvorak, director of the Conservatory, expresses great pleasure at the decision of the trustees and will assist its fruition by sympathetic and active cooperation....''

Thus did Jeannette Meyer Thurber, in a letter to the New York Herald, which appeared May 23, 1893, make clear the Conservatory's intentions. The Conservatory would operate under no ``quota system,'' as the Herald reporter recounts: ``This institution has determined to add to the 800 white students as many negroes of positive talent as may apply. There will be absolutely no limit. I have the authority of Mrs. Thurber herself for that.''

Two days after the Herald article appeared, Dvorak penned a response, which reveals much of the character of the composer, and the nature of his commitment to the Conservatory's project.

``My first musical education I got from my schoolmaster, a man of good ability. He taught me to play the violin.... Then I spent two years at the organ school in Prague.... From that time on I had to study for myself. It is impossible for me to speak without emotion of the strains and sorrows that came upon me in the long and bitter years that followed.''

Most importantly, Dvorak attacked an idea that was very prevalent at the time, sometimes referred to as ``noblesse oblige'': that the rich were far better equipped to master the most advanced ideas of culture, and that corruption and idleness were the ``natural condition'' of the poor:

``It is to the poor that I turn for musical greatness. The poor work hard: They study seriously. Rich people are apt to apply themselves lightly to music, and to abandon the painful toil to which every strong musician must submit without complaint and without rest. Poverty is no barrier to one endowed by nature with musical talent. It is a spur. It keeps the mind loyal to the end. It stimulates the student to great efforts.

``Could I have had in my earlier days the advantages, freely offered in such a school as the Natiional Conservatory of Music, I might have been spared many of my hardest trials and have accomplished much more.''

The composer Johannes Brahms had helped Dvorak, who was the son of a butcher and innkeeper, get several scholarships in the 1870s. Brahms had also gotten Dvorak's music published and performed, and had even given money personally. Dvorak was of the same moral bent.

Dvorak was no easy taskmaster, however. His own experience of hardship did not cause him to be soft on his students, black or white--just the opposite. His student, Harry Rowe Shelley, reports:

``To be a successful student under the direction of this man, a thorough knowledge of preliminaries was necessary--upon those, no time was ever spent by him. Dvorak kept one pupil at work for 40 weeks upon the thematic development (Durch Führung) of an overture, three lessons weekly, during which period the pupil wrote thousands of measures, before the master expressed himself, saying `Now it is right; now you know the durch Führung treatment from Haydn to me, and if you imitate any composer, you are a bad musician. Now go your own way.''

Dvorak took particular interest in the African-American pupils, many of whom he considered to be his best students. One of the most polemical of events was the concert of January 1894, dedicated to the New York Herald's Free Clothing Fund, at which Dvorak not only conducted, but introduced to the city of New York the work of the African-American Maurice Arnold, whom Dvorak considered to be his best composition student. The occasion was noted by the Herald's reporter:

``Each soloist, with one exception, belonged to the colored race. This idea was due to Mrs. Thurber. She threw open the doors of her excellently equipped musical educational establishment to pupils of ability, no matter what their race, color or creed. Emancipation, in her idea, had not gone far enough. Bodies had been liberated, but the gates of the artistic world were still locked.''

Dvorak also shared conducting duties with Arnold, and with Edward Kinney, an organist and member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which was something entirely revolutionary for the segregated stages of the classical music world in the United States. Kinney conducted the ``inflammatus'' from Rossini's Stabat Mater, with Sissieretta Jones as the soprano soloist. Clearly, a cultural revolution had been declared and was being pursued by the Conservatory in New York.


Dvorak and the Spirituals

Debates continue to this day about the extent to which Dvorak was influenced by the African-American spiritual in his compositions. Even more than of racism, the debate itself smacks of ignorance of classical compositional methods.

Researcher Kathy Wolfe has called attention to passages from Gustav Jenner's book Johannes Brahms As Man, Teacher, and Artist, which identify Brahms's compositional method. When compared with Dvorak's remarks on the topic, their ideas are seen to be virtually identical. It was Brahms, whom Dvorak, in a letter in 1878, referred to as his ``master,'' that set the musical standard for what was termed at the time the ``dramatic school'' of composition, as opposed to the ``lyrical school'' of Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz. Of Brahms, Jenner writes:

``Brahms's first requirement was that the composer know his text in detail.... Then he would recommend that before composing a poem, I should carry it around in my head for a long time.... He therefore advised me, if at all possible, not to proceed to the working-out of a song until its full plan was already in my head, or on paper. `Whenever ideas come to you, go take a walk; then you'll find that what you had thought was a finished idea, was only the beginning of one.'|''

Dvorak's comments on composition are recorded by a student:
``If you write well by accident once, you will be just as likely to write badly ten times. Have a reason for everything you do. Examine your reason from every point of view. Make up your mind as to the merit of a musical theme ... only after careful thorough consideration. I have no patience with the people who write down the first thing that comes into their head, who accompany it with the harmonies that happen to suggest themselves at the moment, who then score it for any instrument....''

Dvorak was too much of a craftsman, too much of a thinker, to have, therefore, been ``smitten'' with the ``exotic'' or ``quaint'' character of the spirituals. It was the singer and instrumentalist Harry Burleigh, Dvorak's friend, who sang the spirituals for him. Burleigh says,
``(Dvorak) literally saturated himself with Negro song.... I sang our Negro songs for him very often, and before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the spirit of the old Spirituals.''
Burleigh recounts that, once after he sang ``Go Down Moses'' to Dvorak, that the composer exclaimed, `Burleigh, that is as great as a Beethoven theme!'|''

What Dvorak was hearing, was not bird-calls, the stamping feet of Indians, or tumbleweeds rolling across the American prairie. He was hearing the unheard relationships in the music, the intervallic relations, which Keats referred to in his poem, ``Ode On A Grecian Urn'': ``Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.'' It was the generative principle behind the spirituals, a principle which is non-sensual, but real (and therefore ``spiritual''), which a composer would hear, if it existed.

Burleigh also states, however, that Dvorak ``just saturated himself in the spirit of those old tunes and then invented his own themes. Dvorak, according to his own testimony, heard the ``Negro melodies'' as very akin to Scottish music, because of the peculiarity of mode used. Indian music also used the same modality. Some of these themes, such as the Largo of the Symphony No. 9, ``From the New World,'' were therefore mistaken for folk themes, and were meant to be; they were so crafted.

Dvorak also discussed slavery with Burleigh. What would have been Dvorak's reaction to the stories of Burleigh's grandfather, who liberated slaves on the Underground Railroad in Erie, Pennsylvania, or of Burleigh's mother, who, although a college graduate and linguist (she spoke French, and was fluent in Latin and Greek) was unable, because she was black, to work at the local schools as anything but a janitor? These elements, too, shaped Dvorak's reaction to the spirituals, because they shaped the text of the spirituals. And, Dvorak was not apolitical; he became a member of the Bohemian Parliament after returning to his native land from America.

Dvorak saw the spirituals as a potential resource for the universal art of musical composition, of which he was one of the three or four great living masters at the time, and sought to use this art in the service of freedom. Dvorak was not a multiculturalist.

``[The spirituals] are distinguished by unusual and subtle harmonies, the like of which I have found in no other songs but those of old Scotland and Ireland. The point has been urged that many of these touching songs, like those of Foster, have not been composed by the Negroes themselves, but are the work of white men, while others did not originate on the plantations, but were imported from Africa. It seems to me that this matters but little.... Whether the original songs which must have imspired 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.''


Fight for the National Conservatory

Jeannette Thurber's persistence in her project to establish the National Conservatory (begun in 1885, when she was 35 years old) as a federal institution, almost worked. In 1888, Thurber fought and lost a battle to have the Congress disburse $200,000 from the federal budget to fund the school.

In 1890, she gained a congressional charter, without funding. In part, it stated (according to author Emanuel Rubin): ``Said corporation is hereby empowered to found, establish and maintain a national conservatory of music within the District of Colombia.'' An editorial in the New York Post stated,

``Hereafter the National Conservatory in New York will be nominally only a branch of the central establishment at Washington, but in reality it will continue, for some time, at least, to be of more importance than the Washington school.''

The bill to establish the Washington National Conservatory was signed into law by President Harrison on March 3, 1891. Dvorak was offered the directorship of the Conservatory by cable in the late spring of that year. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume, that both he, and Mrs. Thurber, intended to begin work in New York and then to extend that work to the nation's capital as soon as resources would allow. Dvorak was being retained to lead a national musical program, supported by the Congress of the United States, in the nation's capital.

In 1894, a bill was introduced to locate a site for the Conservatory, but the congressional committee on the District of Columbia disapproved it. And, though Thurber had enlisted the assistance of August Belmont, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt in her original founding of the New York school, only Carnegie ever gave a contribution--$5,000--and the school survived on the fortune of the Thurbers and fundraising, usually of $100 level contributions. Not only was there no money forthcoming for Washington: the New York Conservatory began to starve.

In an 1895 article, ``Music in America,'' Dvorak tried to argue for financial support from the government and states by appealing to the ``American System'' sentiments of the citizenry.

``The great American republic alone, in its national government as well as in the several governments of the States, suffers art and music to go without encouragement. Trades and commerce are protected, ... but music must go unaided.... Another thing which discourages the student of music is the unwillingess of publishers to take anything but light and trashy music. European publishers are bad in that respect, but the American publishers are worse. Thus, when one of my pupils last year produced a very creditable work, ... he ... could not get it published in America, but had to send it to Germany, where it was at once accepted. The same is true of my own compositions on American subjects.''

Dvorak may have been unaware of what had happened to Scott Joplin, whose classically modeled compositions were sometimes compared to the work of Chopin, and who endeavored to publish them, only to be told that his ``rags'' were the only thing that would sell''--that is, be published. But, he was probably aware of the popularity of ``coon songs,'' like, ``All Coons Look Alike To Me,'' ``Coon Coon Coon,'' ``The Coon In The Moon,'' etc. His own quartet in F major, composed in Sillville, Iowa, was referred to as the ``Nigger'' Quartet, though now it is simply called the ``American'' quartet.

But, even if Dvorak did not realize it, he and Mrs. Thurber and their students were systematically disproving every contention of the emerging ``science'' of eugenics, and racial anthropology. The Englishman James Bryce, for example, contended that

``It must be remembered that there are among the colored people not only different classes, but different races, some of which are greatly below others in intelligence and capacity for progress.''

These were the ideas that permeated the environment in which Dvorak worked, and against the which his compositional method intrinsically stood.


Victory in Defeat

The Panic of 1893 created serious problems for the Thurbers, and with the lack of funds from fair-weather benefactors, and no foreseeable funds to come from the federal government, Dvorak could only be retained for another year, at half his original salary. Dvorak returned to Prague in 1895, and became the director of the Bohemian Conservatory of Music. Though the National Conservatory continued, and produced many important musicians and teachers, the political defeat had taken place. African-American musicians would not conduct in New York for almost 50 more years; the Metropolitan Opera stage would remain closed to blacks until 1955; only endless variations on the minstrel show--vaudeville, Broadway, the ``nightclub circuit,'' etc. would prosper, as Brahms/Dvorak's compositional method would fade from practice, if not from memory.

The greatest legacy of that tradition, however, would eventually avenge Dvorak. The singers, who had so inspired him, like Harry Burleigh, would have their ambassadors in Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Dorothy Maynor. The church tradition of the AME and AME Zion especially, would continue the emphasis on polyphonic music, and even polyphonic religious composition, sought by Dvorak's composition classes. The National Association of Negro Musicians, founded in 1919, would preserve a commitment to the high performance and teaching standards of Dvorak and his students. The frayed strand of classical culture would remain, and would inspire a population that would gain from this music the moral courage to respond to the geat challenge posed to it by Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, without that musical culture, there could have been no civil rights movement.

Today, it will be that frayed thread that will save the United States population from sure moral and cultural extinction, if only we so work as to achieve this. In Dvorak's words, ``When music has been established as one of the reigning arts of the land, another wreath of fame and glory will be added to this country which earned in name, the `Land of Freedom,' by unshackling her slaves at the price of her own blood.'' America's cultural emancipation has not occurred, 100 years later. The spiritual edifice of a ``great and noble school,'' a musical School of Athens, must be erected in the hearts of the populace; they must be given their voice, the voice that Dvorak sought to give to them, as the emissary of classical music-culture. It is their inalienable right.


Captions and Displays

``In Dvorak's words, `When music has been established as one of the reigning arts of the land, another wreath of fame and glory will be added to this country which earned in name, the ``Land of Freedom,'' by unshackling her slaves at the price of her own blood.'|''

Anton Dvorak during his tenure at the National Conservatory in New York City.

Reprinted with permission from Dvorak in America, 1892-1895 edited by John C. Tibbetts. (Photograph courtesy of the Onteora Club Library.) Copyright 1993 by Amadeus Press. Jeanette M. Thurber, founder of the National Conservatory, who brought Dvorak to New York.

``Even if Dvorak did not realize it, he and Mrs. Thurber and their students at the National Conservatory were systematically disproving every contention of the emerging `science' of eugenics, and racial anthropology.''

``Dvorak saw the spirituals as a resource for the universal art of musical composition, of which he was one of the three or four great living masters, and sought to use this art in the service of freedom. Dvorak was not a multiculturalist.''

Great performers in the classical tradition Dvorak and his allies fought for: Left, Leontyne Price and right, Shirley Verret, performing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Dvorak's collaborator, singer Harry T. Burleigh.


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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.


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