Antonín Dvořák in America

Dvořák with family and friends in New York in 1893

More than 130 years ago, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák left for the United States, where he spent several years as the head of the National Conservatory of Music. It was there that he composed his most famous symphony From the New World.

In the early 1890s, Antonín Dvořák met Jeanette Thurber, the founder of the first National Conservatory of Music in New York. The meeting in London was preceded by numerous letters written with a single purpose. To persuade the famous composer to take up the prestigious post of head of the New York Conservatory. By that time, Dvořák's fame had spread to the United States, and he was offered a concert tour already in 1884.

The conservatory’s founder had great hopes that Dvořák’s presence at the conservatory would elevate the institution to rival those of Europe. Until then, American composition students had to go to study in Europe. Why not change that? Why couldn't someone like Dvořák help the country’s classical music to establish a voice of its own; a tradition of American music and music education right there in New York?

Sheet music of the Symphony No. 9 in E minor | Photo: public domain

It is said that Dvořák turned down the invitation several times, and that he decided to come to America only after his meeting with Jeanette Thurber. The royal salary of $15,000, which was 35,000 gold pieces back then, certainly contributed to his decision. It was enough money to last for a lifetime.

Dvořák set to work with enthusiasm and started by assessing a music competition organised by the conservatory. This is what he wrote about it in his letter home: There are talents here, but they are terribly neglected, they know little, and that is mainly why I was called here, to at least show them the right way.

In addition to his duties as head of the conservatory, Antonín Dvořák had plenty of time to compose. And after a year or so of living in America, he came up with a new composition that stunned New York.

On December 17, 1893 the local media wrote about the premiere of Dvořák’s New World Symphony as being the musical event of the year. They described a night at Carnegie Hall that ended in a thunderous storm of applause and cries of “Dvořák! Dvořák!” as New York hailed the composer.

Spillville | Photo: Sborník k oslavě stoletých narozenin Antonína Dvořáka: 1841-194/Celestin Rypl/Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0

The musically educated New York audience felt that they had just heard the absolute pinnacle of musical romanticism, the best symphonic music ever written.

Meanwhile, music critics concluded that Dvořák had just laid the foundations for a new style of American music. And the Largo from the New World Symphony even became the national anthem of Iowa.

One of the places where Antonín Dvořák left a deep mark on America is the small village of Spillville in Iowa. Dvořák was brought here by his personal secretary, Josef Kovařík, a Czech-American who came from this small village. The composer stayed here with his entire family for about three months.

Every morning he went to St. Wenceslas Church, where he played the organ for believers at morning devotions. There was only one street in Spillville, so Dvořák preferred to walk to the prairie, which started just beyond the last building. And it was there, along the Turkey River, that inspiration  came to him.

It was on its banks that Dvořák composed the famous Quartet in F major, called the American Quartet, which we're about to hear.