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

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories