Antonín Dvořák and the alchemy of American classical music

In the 1980s Ed Vulliamy made a pilgramage to Spillville, Iowa where Antonín Dvořák was inspired to compose his "American" String Quartet. Here he traces the entry of a quiet but profound influence on American music.

Antonín Dvo?ák.
Crossing over: Ralph Steadman's portrait of Dvořák, who found his American voice in Iowa.

In the early-morning hours during the summer of 1893, Antonín Dvorák loved to take a pail of beer down to the Turkey River near Spillville, Iowa. There he would sketch the sounds he could hear, including birdsong, from which he composed his mellifluous “American” String Quartet.

A moment in the piece recalls Dvorák’s arrival in town, which he awoke from its slumber with a blast on the organ of the local church, a key to which he had somehow procured. More memorably, there are the flowing, simmering progressions of the second movement (the Lento) which, perhaps more than any other piece of music, evoke the sense of space that is the eternal American expanse.

Dvorák, the then director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, was taking a break from New York in a corner of the Midwest where he knew he would find fellow Czechs. He was homesick and glad to leave the city – regulations at Grand Central Station forbade his favourite pastime, trainspotting, because non-passengers were not permitted on platforms. He had already written the New World Symphony and made the bold proclamation, in a letter to the New York Herald, that “the new American school of music must strike its roots deeply into its own soil”, rather than transplant music from Europe.

When we say “classical music” in Europe, we know what we mean: it plays on Radio 3, begins with Hildegard of Bingen and proceeds, by way of Mozart and Beethoven, towards Stockhausen – as distinct from blues or jazz, and certainly rock or pop.

In America, these separations do not work; the social and racial desegregations that America vaunts but has failed to achieve in society have occurred in music, and frontiers between “classical”, “blues”, “jazz” – Hollywood and Broadway, gin joint and Carnegie Hall – cannot exist. This is the premise of a forthcoming series of American music at the Wigmore Hall in London performed by the Nash Ensemble and friends, with Dvorák’s glorious quartet on the opening night. Joshua Rifkin will play Scott Joplin, Kim Criswell will sing Kurt Weill and West Side Story; there will be rare Richard Rodgers and an evening of music for Hollywood and Broadway that includes a new arrangement of Aaron Copland’s compositions for film.

The New World Symphony (1893), with its citations from Native American rhythms, constitutes “the first landmark in American classical music”, as far as the critic Anthony Burton is concerned. The institution at which Dvorák taught subsidised the fees of poor students of merit and encouraged black people and women to enrol. Three decades passed before the second crossover moment: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered in 1924 – the point at which American classical learned to, as Burton puts it, “swing the idiom” of the blues. “It’s watered-down jazz,” he says, “but he knew the licks . . .”

What was the great American composition of the 20th century? Is it the spectral sound-texture of Central Park in the Dark, by the founding father of American orchestral music, Charles Ives? Or Robert Johnson’s nerve-racking evocation of the howl of slavery in “Cross Road Blues”; or even Jimi Hendrix’s mutation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the great dirge with which he closed the Woodstock festival – his requiem for hope in America?

Other evenings at the Wigmore feature “European Composers in the USA” and “Americans in Paris”, recognition of the sustained musical dialogue between Old World and New: between Europe and the young nation to which so many fled, escaping oppression only to oppress and to be oppressed, to pioneer, enslave and create.

The strand of American “classical” that matches our European understanding of the word begins with Ives. He was possessed of a strikingly original mind: the son of a bandmaster, he wondered how he might convey in a composition the sound he had once heard, of two bands playing different tunes simultaneously – “whole world music”, as it was coming to be called in Europe, championed by Gustav Mahler – which encapsulates the sounds around us, whether melodic or not.

In Central Park in the Dark (1906), Ives creates a “wall of sound” that explores the eeriness of a natural island in the city, whose distant din we hear, wrapped by night. His piece The Unanswered Question(1908) poses just that, through a lone trumpet’s call on a carpet of shimmering strings. Ives wrote a piano sonata inspired by five radical Americans: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson was of the view that America had “listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe” and that “we will speak our own minds”.

Despite his socially conservative nature, Ives in time became what his biographer Frank Rossiter calls “the only composer who did not work in the shadow of Europe”. This was Americanmusic but not born of American exceptionalism. Instead, as Dvorák had urged, Ives drew on vernacular idioms: his quest for a distinctively American sound was then taken up by Gershwin and Copland, whose inspirations spanned the angular, cubist shapes of New York and the wide open spaces of the West. For the latter, Copland turned to folk melody, as heard in his bestknown piece, also to be performed at the Wigmore, Appalachian Spring.

Folk music arrived in America from all over Europe – Ireland above all, but also Germany, Italy, Moravia and Scandinavia. Yet there was another kind of folk music that came not via white emigration but rather through what the literature professor Paul Gilroy calls the Black Atlantic – from Africa, aboard slave ships.

This was the music that eventually set American classical apart from the rest of the world. It began as a holler, both to urge work and to escape the pain of work on the plantations; it developed in the melting pot of New Orleans on brass instruments discarded by soldiers after the civil war. It was sung across the Mississippi Delta to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar – or perhaps, as B B King once told me, just “a broom handle with a piece of wire stretched”.

As blues, the holler migrated north after the mechanisation of the cotton fields, from Son House playing in a shotgun shack to Memphis and Chicago, plugged into amplifiers across sprawling ghettoes by Elmore James and the three Kings.

As jazz, it was played at “juke joints” and urban music halls, absorbed into the American classical mainstream by Gershwin, Copland and many after them, and underwent its own journey at the hands of Louis Armstrong, along with Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and the sublime John Coltrane. The entwinement with “classical” roots continued even beyond Coltrane; both Copland and the soul-funk maestro Quincy Jones studied in Paris with the composer Nadia Boulanger, at opposite ends of her life.

While jazz and blues were conquering the world, so the world continued arriving in America, and another important fusion propelled the “American classical” narrative. Rachmaninov wrote the haunting Symphonic Dances, his valedictory yearning for his native Russia, in 1940 while convalescing on Long Island (the original version for two pianos features in the Wigmore series). While Shostakovich sketched his Leningrad Symphony as the Luftwaffe’s bombs rained down on that city, Stravinsky composed his searing response to the Second World War – Symphony in Three Movements – while he was in the United States, reflecting the impotent pain of separation that he felt. Neither Béla Bartók nor Bohuslav Martinu intended to leave his homeland, but both were obliged to flee to America because of their opposition to Nazism. They were unsettled over there, acclaimed as teachers but little known as composers; Martinu counted Burt Bacharach among his pupils.

Until the First World War, some US orchestras spoke German in rehearsals because that was the language of the conductor and most of the players. But jazz and jazz-based idioms became all-pervasive, says Burton, who writes the programme notes for the Wigmore seasons. “That’s why Aaron Copland, as a young man, developed the growing conviction that ‘the two things that seemed always to have been so separate in America – music and the life about me – must be made to touch’.” An unconscious echo, surely, of Dvorák’s ambitions for American music.

I made a pilgrimage to Spillville during the 1980s to visit Dvorák’s riverbank. It is tucked way in north-eastern Iowa, where the unrelenting flat plain gives way to verdant hills, reminiscent of the land the Czechs had left behind. The mayor at the time was a hippie living in a wooden igloo, more interested in his electric guitar and the Byrds, yet proud of the heritage – this remains the town of “Doc Borax”, as Dvorák came to be called here, and there is a small monument to the composer on the green.

There is a story locally that Dvorák was obliged to leave town after his daughter was found to be walking out with the son of a Native American chief (official histories have it that the composer left to join in Czech national festivities in Chicago). Many of the townsfolk had Czech names, or Americanised Czech names, and I met some members of a motorcycle club who called themselves “Bo-Hunks” (“Bo” as in Bohemia). One, called Jimmy Kozack, wore a Czech flag as a bandana and reacted to the composer’s name instantly: “Dvorák, sure. We’re proud of him here in Spillville. He was the town drunk. I got a load of his albums back home.”

The Nash Ensemble American Series runs from 12 October to 26 March 2014 at Wigmore Hall, London W1. Info: wigmore-hall.org.uk