Antonín Dvořák almost made it to Indianola 125 years ago.
He was born 4,762 miles away in Nelahozeves, a village north of Prague, in 1841. As the eldest and a boy, he was expected to follow his father’s professions as a butcher and innkeeper. By 1891 Dvořák had become one of the world’s most famous composers instead. In June of that year, a remarkable woman named Jeannette Thurber, president of New York’s National Conservatory of Music in America, asked Dvořák to become the school’s artistic director and professor of composition, beginning in October 1892, at an astronomical salary.
The National Conservatory offered by far the country’s best musical training program and was highly progressive in outlook, providing full scholarships for many students and actively recruiting women, African-Americans, those with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups. Dvořák expressed its goal, which he embraced completely, in a letter to a friend:
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! This will certainly be a great and lofty task, and I hope that with God’s help I shall succeed in it.
Dvořák eventually said yes to Mrs. Thurber, and his wife and two of their six children traveled with him to New York for his first year in America. The composer originally planned to return to Europe for the summer of 1893. At the suggestion of his Czech-American secretary, he decided instead to travel to the Czech emigrant community of Spillville, Iowa, where the family’s four younger children joined their parents and older siblings.
Dvořák reveled in his Iowa sojourn, where his daily routine included an early morning walk along the Turkey River to listen to the birds, Mass in the local church (during which he played the organ), time for composition and the family during the day, and long conversations with older residents in the evenings. The two remarkable works composed in Spillville reflect Dvořák’s delight at his time there: a String Quartet in F major (Subtitled “The American,” it included the call of the scarlet tanager in the third movement) and a String Quintet in E-flat major.
The Dvořáks were fascinated by the Native Americans they met who were part of a traveling patent medicine show, the “Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company.” At the composer’s request, Big Moon and his colleagues performed songs and dances for them apart from the medicine shows; their music is thought to be reflected in the String Quintet, as well as in other works. Dvořák also tried some of their “Kickapoo Indian Oil” as a headache remedy. After it was applied to his forehead, he reported, “Pali to jako hrom!” (“It burns like thunder!”)
Dvořák and family returned to New York by way of Chicago and the World’s Colombian Exposition Quadricentennial. On August 12, 1893 (“Bohemian Day”), he conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (expanded to 114 players) for a crowd of more than 8,000 in his Symphony No. 4, three “Slavonic Dances,” and the “My Country” overture. December brought an even greater triumph, with the world premiere of his Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) at Carnegie Hall.
After three years at the National Conservatory, Dvořák returned to Bohemia. He brought with him notebooks of musical themes to be developed in future compositions, some of which made their way into Rusalka, which was composed five years later.
*Cover photo credit: New York Philharmonic Archives
Mark Tiarks began his professional opera career as a stage manager and stage director in DMMO’s 1978 season. Since then, he has been Artistic Administrator for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Producing Director of Court Theatre, General Director of Chicago Opera Theater, and Director of Planning and Marketing for the Santa Fe Opera.