Joan DeVee Dixon on her love of music, her special affinity for this country and her plans for the future

Joan DeVee Dixon

Joan DeVee Dixon, pianist, organist, composer and Professor of Music at Frostburg State University in Maryland was one of the star performers at this year’ American Spring music festival organized by the International Dvorak Society. Joan, five-time recipient of the prestigious Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council, is a prized musician who gives concert tours the world over, but despite a packed schedule, she has returned over and over to the Czech Republic. Earlier this week she came to the studio to talk about her music, her special affinity for this country and her plans for the future. Like many famous musicians her love of music manifested itself at an early age.

Joan DeVee Dixon
“When I was very young my father bought a piano for my mom for a Christmas present and I just kind of moved in and started playing it.”

And – you got a teacher soon I suppose?

“My mom taught me a couple of pieces and they has a very difficult time getting a teacher for me because I was so young – I was about four and a half, five. At that time it was not very common for teachers to take students until they were nine or ten. And they finally convinced a teacher to take me, saying it is our money –will you please take her for a year and if it doesn’t work out we won’t blame you.”

And it worked?

“And it worked.”

And when did you discover the organ? How did that come about?

“When I was a teenager –maybe 14,15- I had confirmation classes at my church and I had to stay in the evenings because my parents both worked and it was a couple of hours before they could pick me up and I started sneaking upstairs and playing the organ without anybody knowing about it.“

Which composers did you play?

“I would say that probably the American literature. You know Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and things like that – once I reached a point where I was able to pick things for myself. But I have always had an interest in playing fun things and I have always had an interest in sacred music and I have always played church music…I have done classical and sacred, so it has been a mix of many different things.”

When did you discover Czech composers?

Spillville, Iowa
“I was introduced to them through Spillville, Iowa. Its quite a funny story because I really wanted to play a concert in Spillville. I contacted them and I was introduced to the organist when I was on a bicycle ride. I sent her some CDs and I was trying to arrange a concert and we were having a very difficult time setting it up. I finally asked for an appointment to meet with them and when I did it turned out that their concern was that I might come to Spillville and not agree to play a polka. So I said well I have never played a polka on the organ but I am sure it could be done and I would be happy to give it a try.”

So how did the concert turn out?

“Oh, it was a great success. And I’ve been there every year since.”

You said they helped introduce you to Czech composers – where did that take you from there?

“They introduced me to Radoslav Kvapil and he invited me to come to the American Spring Festival and each year I have been here I have gone to music stores and wherever else I can find music and look things up and I always go back to the United States with a suitcase of Czech music that I can try out.”

And you helped unearth some long-forgotten compositions by Antonin Dvorak’s teacher Antonín Liehmann?

Museum in Zlonice
“Yes, I was at the museum in Zlonice and at the time I was working on a mass for Spillville and I was very interested in polkas and I was given a tour of the museum and I saw this manuscript of a polka and I started asking may questions about it and finally Jan Tůma, the director of the museum said - would you like a copy -and I said yes and he made me a copy of the piece.”

And you eventually performed the piece in Spillville. But I understand that you also composed a mass for Spillville. Can you tell me about that?

St Wenceslas Church in Spillville
“Yes, St Wenceslas Church in Spillville is the oldest Czech Catholic Church in the US and its celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010. In 2007 or 2008 they asked me to compose a mass for the anniversary so it was a two or three year project. The mass was played on the anniversary and has been played every year since.”

How do you go about composing a mass for a special occasion?

“It was a lot of work. The Catholic Church in the US has a very strict liturgy and you must use the exact words. You cannot change a period, you cannot change a comma, you cannot change anything. And so it makes it much more difficult to compose the music because you must follow the structure of the text, but I knew that I wanted the music to be Czech in nature so there are a couple of settings and a couple of pieces which are polkas –which has been rather controversial. For me –some of the pieces of the mass this is not appropriate for. Obviously the Agnus Dei I would never, ever set as a polka – I mean something inside of me would never do that. But for instance the Gloria – I don’t have a problem with that at all. I think it is celebratory and joyful and I think if the music is upbeat it is very appropriate for this sort of piece.”

Was it a success with the Czech community in Spillville?

“Yes, and not only in Spillville, the mass has been done in Maryland, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.”

When you say you wanted it to be Czech in nature, what do you see as being Czech in music?

“One of the first things I did, I got hold of a Czech hymnal and just started playing Czech hymns. And then I got hold of a bunch of Czech folk songs and just started playing Czech folk songs and as many polkas as I could get my hands on. And I just played and played and played Czech music and I just tried to internalize it. And I did reference a few pieces. If you are Czech when you hear this mass you would know what the origin of the piece was. I didn’t use it purely or exactly but I think you would detect the influence.“

You say you play mainly American and Czech music –why Czech? What makes it close to your heart?

“I don’t know. I think it is probably something I was just born with. I know that my parents always used to go dancing on Saturday nights. They would go out and many of my cousins played accordions and in polka bands. Whenever there was a wedding there was always a polka band there and we always had Bohemian music playing. So it is something I grew up hearing, it is part of my family tradition I think and something that seems to work very well for me, that is very natural.“

Joan DeVee Dixon and Alice Fiedlerová
Even though you have no Czech roots that you know about ?

“That I know about….but I don’t know, I am beginning to wonder more and more. As I get to know people here more and more I go back and meet my father and think –you know, I really think he is Czech.”

Has coming to this country, getting familiar with it, seeing the nature and the people –has it helped you in interpreting Czech music, in understanding Czech music?

“I have been very lucky because I am very good friends with some professional Czech musicians, especially Alice Fiedlerová, a pianist here in Prague, and Hana Bartošová, the organist in Brno. I have worked very closely with both of them and some things in terms of interpretation are just passed on from teacher to student and teacher to student and I think it is very important that you have the opportunity to play for another Czech musician and have their input.”

Are you well acquainted with any Czech bands or ensembles –have you played with any - apart from Alice Fiedlerová with whom you play four hands?

“I have heard the Prague Castle Band several times. They always play for the festival. In fact I went to their Prague Spring concert this year and it was really terrific. They are just a great group.”

So what are your plans for the future? When are you coming back to the Czech Republic and do you have any projects in the pipeline?

“ I am very lucky –I have a Sabbatical from my university this year. So I have one year for research and the proposal I gave to my university was to spend a good amount of this year in Prague. I will be working on the Liehmann manuscripts through the museum in Zlonice and hoping to secure a publisher for those pieces because they really deserve to be in the public eye and to be available to people because they are really wonderful, wonderful pieces. Then I am going to work on my Czech and do some composing and writing? “

Joan DeVee Dixon
Are you hoping that your time here next year will give you inspiration for your own composing?

“Yes, I am sure it will. It always does. I typically arrange American spirituals – I do a lot of spiritual arrangements for organ and it is always fun getting the feedback. I always bring a different set each year which is a little bit challenging –which means writing new arrangements each year, which sometimes I am finishing as I am getting on the airplane …but it is always fun to come here and play them for different audiences and get their reaction because they really love it. ”