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dvorak and spillville

During his time in the United States, Dvorak initially planned to travel back to Vysoka in Bohemia for the first summer holiday. His assistant, the Czech-American Josef Kovarik, however, suggested that he might like to spend the vacation in his home town of Spillville in the state of Iowa. From the mid-19th century onwards, a large number of immigrants from Bohemia, especially from around Tabor and Ceske Budejovice, began to settle in this region in the hope of acquiring their own land and greater freedom across the Atlantic. Dvorak took to the idea of spending some time in the company of his fellow countrymen and so, in the spring of 1893, he called his four remaining children who had stayed behind in Europe to come and join him in New York and, after the end of the school year, on 3 June, the entire family, including Kovarik, set out on their long train journey into the American interior, travelling a distance of two thousand kilometres.
general view of Spillville (1895)
The village of Spillville was named after its founder Joseph Spielmann (who died four years before Dvorak’s arrival) and, at the time the composer stayed there, it had a population of about 350 predominantly Czech-speaking inhabitants. By 1860 the community boasted two public buildings which they had constructed themselves: a school and St Wenceslaus church.

house where the Dvoraks stayed

The Dvoraks were accommodated in a building which was later to become the Bily Clock Museum; today it houses a permanent exhibition open to the public devoted to Dvorak’s stay in the community. The family had the whole first floor with six rooms at their disposal; Kovarik stayed at his parents’ house. The composer immediately fell in love with the place. He wrote back home to his friends in Bohemia:

You probably know that the children arrived safely in America. As soon as they got here, we left New York for Spillville for our summer holidays. It’s a Czech settlement. There are Czech church services and a school – so it seems as if we were in Vysoka.

That Spillville had become something of an “American Vysoka” for Dvorak is borne out by the fact that his daily routine here essentially copied the pattern he had adopted in Vysoka: he would get up early in the morning and go out for a walk in the countryside, he attended morning Mass in the local church and liked to play on the organ there. Dvorak later remembered:

I liked to be among these people and they all liked me as well, especially the elderly citizens, who were pleased when I played ‘O God, we bow before Thee’ or ‘A thousand times we greet Thee’ for them on the church organ.”

In the morning Dvorak would usually work on his compositions, after lunch he mostly spent time with his family (they also went on a number of excursions in the region and sometimes they were taken to more remote villages in a carriage driven by the priest, Tomas Bily, whom Dvorak was particularly fond of), and in the evening the composer would converse with the locals about the trials of their early life in America.


St Wenceslaus church
The summer holiday of 1893 spent far from the bustle of the big city was undoubtedly one of the happiest periods in the composer’s life. The tranquility that Dvorak felt, surrounded by people from home and, after long months of separation from his other children, by his entire family, was also reflected in his compositions. During his time in Spillville Dvorak wrote two sunlit works which now count among the most popular pieces of the international chamber repertoire: String Quartet No. 12 in F major with the subtitle “American”, and String Quintet No. 3 in E flat major. In both cases this is clearly music of Dvorak’s “American” period, moreover, inspired by his stay in Spillville: apart from the characteristic pentatonic flavour typical for his American oeuvre, the quartet also incorporates the song of the scarlet tanager which Dvorak would hear on his walks to Turkey River; in the fourth movement we might detect echoes of the organ from the local church. In the quintet we will hear the sound of the Native American drums that accompanied the ritual song of the Iroquois Indians who visited Spillville with their herbal remedies. Dvorak was enchanted by the performances they gave to promote their wares and, for the duration of their stay in the village, he apparently attended every one.
notes in Dvorak’s calendar

school and church in Spillville – period photo
In the middle of August the Spillville idyll was disrupted by the arrival of a group of Chicago Czechs who had come to invite Dvorak to the event “Czech Day”, held as part of the World Fair in Chicago. Dvorak was asked to conduct a concert of his works which was being organised for the occasion. Although he initially didn’t want to leave Spillville, he finally agreed to take part. After returning from Chicago he barely had two weeks of holiday left. The family departed for New York on 16 September, leaving Spillville far behind.