Monday, August 29, 2011:Dvořák’s Birds

A scarlet tanager (not a pigeon), one of the songbirds that inspired Dvořák in Iowa

Dvořák’s Birds

One of Antonín Dvořák’s passions was keeping pigeons. But when he left New York City in June 1893 to spend a summer in the American state of Iowa, he undoubtedly had no idea about how the Iowa birds would impress him.

Dvořák was looking forward to a summer on the prairie because “I shall have pigeons there,” he wrote in a letter. But it wasn’t a pigeon that helped make musical history.

Reportedly on his first morning in Spillville in this rural state, Dvořák was up at 5 o’clock and walking up and down the street in front of the village school. A resident spotted him and panicked: Was something wrong? Had something terrible happened to the great composer?

No, “Nothing happened – and yet a great deal,” the maestro said, according to Cyril Klimesh’s They Came to This Place. “Imagine, I was walking there in the woods along by the stream and after eight months [in the New York metropolis] I heard again the singing of birds!” He said he was going to go eat breakfast and then go back to the woods again.

Often that summer, rural residents found Dvořák walking through the woods or standing still, listening, and making notes. They got used to it.

Dvořák's String Quartet: I'm finished. It went quickly. Thanks God (Czech idiom expressing relief and joy).

The result of his nature studies comprises part of his String Quartet in F Major, nicknamed “the American” quartet. According to some bird lovers (including the wife of Dvořák’s Iowa secretary and interpreter), in the third movement you can hear the birdsong of the scarlet tanager.

That’s one of the birds that Dvořák would have heard in the woods that summer.

The odds are quite slim that you’ll hear a scarlet tanager in the Czech Republic this September – the little, brightly-colored bird migrates between North and South America and is extremely rare in Western Europe.

However, you’ll be able to hear a lot of Dvořák this September during the 11th annual Dvořákova Praha (Dvořák’s Prague) festival Sept 8-24 at The Rudolfinum. It features 22 concerts — 13 of Dvořák’s works, and one lecture on his reception in Germany. – oo

– Mary Matz

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