What Was Dvořák Doing in Iowa?

by Paul Anderson

Antonín Dvořák, the world-famous Czech composer, spent the summer of 1893 with his family in Spillville, Iowa, a small town with a population of about 350. “What was Dvořák doing in Iowa?” you might ask. Here’s the story:

At the height of a successful career in Europe, Dvořák was offered the opportunity to serve as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. The president of the conservatory, Jeanette Thurber, was determined to recruit him, and overcame Dvořák’s initial apprehension about the move, in part by offering him a very generous salary and the opportunity to take four months off during the summer.

Dvořák brought a student from Prague Conservatory, Josef Jan Kovařík, to New York with him to act as his personal assistant. Josef was originally from Spillville, Iowa, and during Dvořák’s first year in New York, he spoke affectionately of the beautiful countryside around Spilleville and encouraged him to visit. Wearying of the frantic pace of New York City, Dvořák decided to spend the summer in Spillville.

The town lived up to the expectations set by Kovařík. Dvořák loved the beautiful scenery and went for a walk every morning before returning to his home to compose and spend time with the family. Shortly after arriving in Spillville, he wrote to a friend:

I have been on vacation since 3 June here in the Czech village of Spillville and I won’t be returning to New York until the latter half of September. The children arrived safely from Europe and we’re all happy together. We like it very much here and, thank God, I am working hard and I’m healthy and in good spirits.
(Letter to Jindrich Geisler, as quoted at http://www.antonin-dvorak.cz/en/string-quartet12).

At the American Conservatory, Dvořák had met someone who would profoundly influence the music he would compose during his time in America. Harry Burleigh was an African American student who mopped floors to pay for his tuition. Dvořák had heard him singing spirituals as he cleaned the school and had asked him to sing for him, so that he could immerse himself in this truly American style of music. He had modeled the main themes of his New World Symphony, composed during the school year, on the melodies he heard Harry sing.

Now, in Spillville, Dvořák busied himself with writing a second American piece: a string quartet, once again with American-sounding themes. He wrote all four movements in just 16 days, and wrote at the end of the score, “Thank God!…I am pleased. It all went so quickly!” (See http://www.antonin-dvorak.cz/en/string-quartet12.) The American influence is particularly evident in the fourth movement, which begins at 21:23 in the following performance by the New York Philharmonic String Quartet:

So, the answer to the question “What was Dvořák doing in Iowa?” is simply this: exploring a new world and creating a magnificent piece inspired by it.

The New York Philharmonic String Quartet will perform Dvořák’s American String Quartet in Charlotte on October 5. For more information about the concert, visit www.charlotteconcerts.org.

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