Dvořák American Heritage Association keeping great composer’s legacy alive in NYC

Antonín Dvořák

The great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák lived in New York for three years in the 1890s, after being invited to teach at America’s national conservatory. Dvořák’s stay in the city made a tangible impact on his work, and it was there that he was to write the wonderful New World Symphony. Today his legacy in New York is kept alive by the Dvořák American Heritage Association.

Dr Susan Lucak
At DAHA’s as-yet-uncompleted home in NYC’s Czech National Building I spoke to leading member Dr Susan Lucak, and began by asking her: when and why was the association founded?

“The Dvořák American Heritage Association was founded in 1990. The reason the organisation was created was to save a house in which Antonín Dvořák lived during his stay in New York City from 1892 to 1895, when he was the director of a conservatory in America – it was the national conservatory in America.”

But the campaign to save his house failed.

“It failed in the sense that the house in which he lived on East 17th St was ultimately destroyed. But our dream to honour his musical legacy in New York did not die, it was not destroyed.”

Tell us a bit please about the work that Dvorak did here in New York.

“Antonín Dvořák was brought here by Jeanette Thurber in 1892 to encourage American composers to create their own American music, rather than look towards Europe for musical inspiration.

“So Dvořák was the director of the National Conservatory and he listened to the music and the sounds that he heard here in America. He was impressed by the music of black Americans, which were called Negro Spirituals at that time. He also went to Spillville, Iowa, where he heard the music of American Natives.

“These sounds very much impressed him and he incorporated the spirit of this music, of these sounds, in his works.

“In the house on East 17th St he composed masterpieces including the New World Symphony, the American Quartet, the Biblical Songs, and other masterpieces.”

How was Dvořák received in New York? Was he already a huge world star of music?

“He was very well known in Europe and he was received here very positively. He conducted concerts in New York and was invited to perform at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. He was very, very well received and he was very well known.”

Tell us more about the Dvořák American Heritage Association and what you do today.

“After the Dvořák house was destroyed what the organisation worked on was to rename the street where the house once stood, and it is now named Dvořák place.

“In addition, the New York Philharmonic donated a statue that they received from a Czech organisation in the 1960s. The statue was created by a sculptor by the name of Ivan Mestrovic, and was not placed in the Lincoln Centre in the 1960s because it did not fit its abstract décor.

“It was placed on the roof of the New York Philharmonic Hall, at the time called the Fisher Hall. It was there for many years, sort of exposed to the elements.

“It was then donated to the Dvořák American Heritage Association and we placed it in a small park near where the Dvořák house once stood.

“We then did not have a home for Dvořák, but currently the Bohemian National Hall, the národní budova, is being renovated by the Czech government, which bought it from the Czech community led by the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association for one dollar. In exchange the BBLA has the third floor of the národní budova.

“On the third floor there is a room that will be called the Dvořák Room, or the Dvořákova síň, where we will honour in a palpable way the American musical legacy of Antonín Dvořák.”

Mantelpiece from original Dvořák house
We’re sitting in that room now – what features of the room are original pieces connected with Dvořák, and what will be here when it’s completed?

“The room is not a large room, but it contains a marble mantelpiece that we saved from the original Dvořák house. Also we saved a plaque that was affixed to the house by a former mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, in 1941, when Dvořák’s 100th birthday was honoured.

“The plans for the room are to have an exhibit that will be called ‘Dvořák in America’ and will focus on the three years of his stay in New York. It will have the feel of a parlour room from the 1890s, in terms of the furniture that it will contain.

“It will also contain archives and a media centre where one can hear his music. To give life and energy to this room we’re going to have, and we already have, a concert and lecture series.”