“I am told that there is no popular demand for good music in America. That is not so. Every concert in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago or Washington, and in most other cities, no doubt, disproves such a statement. American concert halls are as well filled as those of Europe, and, as a rule, the listeners–to judge them by their attentive conduct and subsequent expression of pleasure–are not a whit less appreciative.”
Antonín Dvořák in Harper’s Magazine, February, 1895
Dvořák retains the distinction of being the only major European composer to come to America (1892-5) on a mission to help found a national school for classical music training. Instead he found his American students patriotic, enthusiastic, daring, and a resource for some of his own best-remembered compositions: the American String Quartet (premiered in Boston in January 1894), the American String Quintet (premiered in New York in January 1894), the New World Symphony (premiered in New York in December 1893), and the Cello Concerto (completed in 1895).
Our February program at the Fitzgerald Theatre this season captures Dvořák’s chamber music before and during the American encounter in ensembles of increasing size, from the Terzetto in C major for Two Violins and Viola (January1887) to the Cypresses for String Quartet (May 1887, based on a romantic song cycle of the same title composed in 1865), and Quartet Movement in F major, B.120 (October 1881). The program concludes with the American String Quintet.
As a composer some of Dvořák’s earliest music was chamber music–a string quintet, string quartet dating from the 1860s. His early training was as an organist, but the stringed instrument he played was the viola! His music is unabashedly Czech despite heavy instruction in the music of the Germanic masters of the time. He incorporated specific folk references– the Furiant and Dumka– within his music as often as Haydnesque variation movements. His sensitivity to the repression he felt as a Bohemian national may have made him more open to the musical practices and styles of American Indians and African Americans born of similar treatment. His summer journey and vacations in the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa would place in close proximity to the American heartland, while time in New York teaching in the inner city would bring him into contact with talented young musicians like the singer, and soon to be composer H.T. Burleigh, who, following Dvořák’s example, created concert arrangements that have preserved traditional African-American music.