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.

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

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

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.