Monday, September 26, 2011: An American Story

Dvořák put the question of going to America to a family vote. The answer was 'yes.'

An American Story

On September 15, 1892, Antonín Dvořák set sail to the New World with his wife Anna and two of their children to assume the post of the director of the National Conservatory in New York.

But not everybody knows the full story of this relocation.

Surprisingly, the great Czech composer wasn’t really keen on the idea of leaving his cozy, Central European home, and refused the first offer of the rich philanthropist, Jeanette Thurber, who had founded the Conservatory.

The second time she offered him the post, the contract stated much more generous terms. Dvořák’s wife, Anna, had to exert a bit of influence to turn his opinion around. Maybe without this little womanly orchestration, The New World Symphony would never have surfaced and become the core of his musical work.

The story of Dvořák’s departure for the United States opened the concert of his music performed by the Orsetto ensemble on September 11 at the Czech Museum of Music, where the current exhibition explores Dvořák’s life and work.

The Disman Radio Children’s Ensemble, a children’s drama group existing for almost 80 years, dramatized the events leading up to Dvořák boarding the ship. The little actors provided basic information about the move and even took on the roles of Dvořak’s six small children who were holding a little family referendum whether or not to leave for the US. (Despite their fear of Indians, the children approved the decision to go.)

So in September 1892 Dvořák left, though only a part of his family could come. The rest of the little Dvořáks stayed with their grandmother. By the time they were all reunited again in Iowa in 1893, the maestro had already almost finished composing his American New World opus.

The Orsetto Ensemble performs Dvořák's American Quartet

The evening featured another great opus composed during his US stay, the American String Quartet, Opus 96 in F Major, performed by the recently founded (2010) Orsetto Ensemble. Dvořák composed this piece supposedly in three days during his summer-long vacation in Spillville, Iowa. It was very shortly following the composition of the “big” symphony, so he must have been enjoying a really creative streak.

Similar to the Symphony from the New World, the music for the quartet comes from American influences; Dvořák himself claimed inspiration from American folk songs. (Somewhat bizarrely, ornithologists cherish the finding that he scored into to the third movement of the quartet the song of an American bird, the scarlet tanager, which irritated him during work. You can read more about this in Opus Osm’s article “Dvořák’s Birds,” published Aug 29.)

The Orsetto’s performance is a part of the concert series that accompanies the museum’s current exhibition. Orsetto is the Italian word for teddy bear, the lucky charm of the new orchestra. It consists of young musicians from the Conservatory and the Faculty of Performing Arts.

Another free concert in the museum’s program will be held tonight (Mon, Sept 26) at 7 pm. The Archioni Plus orchestra will perform the first part of the Slavonic dances.

The Dvořák exhibition at the Czech Museum of Music continues through February 2012. – oo

– Zuzana Sklenková

Photo Credits: Top: Antonín Dvořák Museum, Prague; bottom: Joshua Mensch

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