New York

The two and a half years that Dvořák spent on American soil represent an exceptional chapter in the composer’s professional and private life: his international reputation at that time had reached its zenith, the world repertoire now contained a series of his masterpieces, and there was far greater global awareness of the concept of “Czech music”. Dvořák was now a prosperous individual who could ensure the financial security of his large family. Nevertheless, the decision to travel overseas for a significant period of time was not easy for the composer, who much preferred the peace and quiet of Vysoká. Initial negotiations regarding Dvořák’s possible role as director of the New York Conservatory began back in the spring of 1891, about eighteen months before his actual departure for the United States. The president of America’s National Conservatory of Music, Jeanette Thurber, offered Dvořák the annual sum of 15,000 dollars to direct the school and conduct several concerts. In Czech terms this salary was about thirty times higher than the amount the Prague Conservatoire was able to offer him. The composer rejected the offer at first, stating that, at most, he was willing to come over to conduct a few concerts, but nothing more.

Thurber was not to be put off, however, and she began bombarding Dvořák with letters and telegrams. In July 1891 negotiations had reached the stage where the American side was able to send Dvořák a draft contract. Yet, even then, the composer had still not made up his mind. He wrote to his friend Alois Göbl on 1 August: “Yesterday I received a copy of the contract. It is very long, but I don’t yet know if I will accept it. According to the document, I will be teaching composition and instrumentation for three hours a day and, in addition to that, I would have to do eight months of rehearsals with Conservatory pupils for four concerts, and also conduct six concerts in American cities whose programmes would largely comprise Stabat, Spectre, Ludmila, Requiem, symphonies and overtures etc. For this I would get 15,000 dollars or, in Czech terms, 35,000 gulden. They would pay half of my salary in Prague before I left, and I would receive the remaining half in instalments, a month in advance. There is only one other slight problem. I would like them to pay me the remaining 7,500 dollars by the end of May 1893, so that I could take my summer holiday in June, July, August and half of September – I’d like to come back to Bohemia for that. If they agree to this condition, I will probably accept the post. The things people tell you about America don’t amount to much. They are always for or against, that’s how it is in the world. But I’m going to a reliable source. This week I’m seeing prof. Kopta. He lived in America for many years, he has experience and his wife is an American and she’ll be the right one to tell me what’s what.”

Over the next three months several amendments were made to the draft contract between Dvořák and the Conservatory, with various partial revisions to the text, and the composer even met with Jeanette Thurber in London in October. Apparently influenced by her arguments, Dvořák dismissed his original circumspection and began to look forward to his time in America. On 24 October he wrote to his friend August Bohdanecký: “They have written so much about my arrival and they expect all kinds of things from me in my professional capacity. Well, there will be a right commotion when I arrive! And the Czechs living over there are apparently looking forward to my coming!” It wasn’t long before the final version of the contract was ready for signing, according to which the composer was to take up his position as director of the Conservatory in September 1892. The reasons for Dvořák’s ultimate decision to leave for the United States are the subject of debate. First of all, the financial aspect played its role: the salary from the New York Conservatory gave Dvořák and his entire family financial security for the rest of their lives. Another reason was the vision of being able to expand his “operational range” well beyond European borders (even though Dvořák’s music had been performed on the American continent before his arrival). In an oft-cited letter, Dvořák expressed his satisfaction in 1884 that his successes in England “will bear good fruit for Czech culture in general”, yet he would certainly also have been gratified by the fact that he could spread the renown of Czech music far beyond the ocean as well. Musicologist Michael Beckerman holds the opinion that Dvořák’s decision may have been fuelled by a desire to escape the Hanslick-Brahmsian camp who apparently wanted to create from Dvořák some kind of second (lesser) Brahms. Whatever the case, the impact of Dvořák’s American sojourn exceeded all expectations.

Dvořák set out for the United States on 15 September 1892 together with his wife Anna, two of his children and Josef Kovařík, a 22-year-old Czech-American who had just completed his studies at the Prague Conservatoire. Kovařík was to have been the composer’s guide during the initial stages of his time in this foreign country, but their close contact endured for the entire period of Dvořák’s stay in the USA. The last words Dvořák called out from the window of the moving train to friends who had come to the station to see him off, were: “See you in the summer!” After travelling by train to Bremen, the entire party transferred to the ship Saale, which was to take them to New York. During a short stopover in Southampton, England, Dvořák sent a telegram to the children who had stayed behind: “All is well and everyone is fine.”

The journey across the Atlantic took nine days. All the members of Dvořák’s party – with the single exception of the composer himself – bore the endless journey by boat with great difficulty. As Dvořák later wrote, “everyone on the ship was ailing. My wife, the children and Mr Kovařík were poorly to the extent that they couldn’t eat anything for about two days; I, on the other hand, thank God, managed to resist sickness and, for the entire journey, I did not suffer any ill health.” The Saale reached the port of New York on 26 September, but quarantine procedures dictated that passengers spend another whole day on the ship before disembarking. Dvořák first set foot on American soil on 27 September around three in the afternoon. He was welcomed by the secretary of the Conservatory, Edmund Stanton, and by a delegation of American Czechs, which naturally delighted the composer.

Before Dvořák’s arrival, Jeanette Thurber made sure that there was sufficient publicity surrounding the Conservatory’s new director. Regular articles appeared in the press informing readers of the composer’s life and his work to date. In keeping with the mentality of the locals, journalists paid particular attention to the fact that Dvořák had come from humble surroundings and had forged a successful international career by himself. Dvořák’s most important works were already known in the United States, and people were well informed about his origins; now he had arrived in the country, the composer was himself surprised by the extent to which the local press went into detail about his life and work. Dvořák wrote to his friends in Bohemia: “They made such a fuss in all the English, German and Czech papers! As soon as I arrived at the hotel journalists from all the newspapers were waiting for me and I had to say something to all of them and, the next day, there were long articles with my photograph printed there as well, discussing my forthcoming appointment in America.” [...] “If I were to tell you everything that the papers wrote in the first two days, it would’ve been too much, almost too wearisome. That first day I was interviewed so many times, it was terrible. These people know everything about me, every little trifle about my early days in Bohemia and yet they still keep coming, they still want more!”

Apart from the popular pieces in what might today be called the tabloids, more serious articles also appeared in the New York press discussing a theme which continues to be a subject of debate in Dvořák literature to this day: Dvořák as the originator of American national music. Evening Post, 1 October 1892: “His ideas and his style have qualities which permit us to say: This is Czech; just like Chopin’s mazurkas or Liszt’s rhapsodies elicit from us the cry: that’s Polish or that’s Hungarian, even if we haven’t heard it before. Let’s then allow Dvořák to educate American composers with this in mind; may he show them how it is possible to be a pupil of German masters, yet write in a new, national style.”

For the first three weeks Dvořák lived with his family in the Clarendon hotel on the corner of East 18th Street and 4th Avenue, near Union Square. But it was expensive there and too noisy for Dvořák to concentrate on his work, so the family, including Kovařík, moved to rented accommodation in house no. 327 on East 17th Street. For a five-room apartment they paid 80 dollars a month, which still seemed a lot to Dvořák, since he mentioned the rent in a letter to Josef Hlávka, stating that it was “a large amount for us, but here it’s the going rate.” Nevertheless, the flat was very well situated: it was located on the same street as the Conservatory, so Dvořák only had a five-minute walk to the school. The Steinway company loaned the composer a first-class piano for the flat, free-of-charge.

New York itself made a huge impression on Dvořák. In comparison with the provincial character of Prague back then, this was a truly modern, bustling big city with all the benefits and drawbacks that came with it. In letters to his family and friends in Europe he described the city as “great and magnificent”, “life on the streets is extremely colourful and vibrant from early morning and it continues practically throughout the night”, “the city itself is majestic, superb buildings and wonderful streets, and it is immaculate everywhere”. On the streets he was perhaps only troubled by drunk “ayrishky” [Irish women]. His impressions of his new environment were further strengthened by the fact that the start of his stay coincided with the grand celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. For many days and nights the streets of New York were filled with endless processions, ceremonial speeches were given, and music played on every corner. Dvořák wrote in his letters to family and friends back home: “The Columbus celebrations, which came to an end yesterday, were simply overwhelming! We had never seen anything like it, even America had never had the opportunity to show the world what it is capable of, until now. Just imagine file upon file of grand pageants – representing industry, various trades, fleets of gymnasts and athletes (our Sokol movement was there as well), art, everything – and it went on for three days continually, from early morning till 2am – thousands and thousands of people, creating all kinds of different colourful images. And so many different music bands! There were lots of mishaps as well, as you can imagine, there was always something happening. People were even standing on the roofs of tall buildings, even as high as the eleventh floor, looking down on the vast hordes of people.”

Dvořák first set foot in the Conservatory on 1 October. He was welcomed by the school’s president, Jeanette Thurber, who introduced him to the large number of teaching staff comprising over fifty members. One of the first tasks entrusted to the composer in his new function was to assess the compositions entered for a competition announced by the Conservatory. On 6 October Dvořák wrote to his friend Jindřich Geisler: “I am currently sitting at my desk and I have before me a formidable pile of manuscripts (of all kinds); I can see that they are not up to much and it won’t take me long to get through them. There are talented musicians here, but terribly neglected; they know very little, and so I was mainly sent here in order at least to show them the way forward, if I am able.” Dvořák’s chief responsibilities at the Conservatory were to teach composition (two hours three times a week) and instruct the student orchestra during rehearsals (two hours twice a week). Apart from this he was also required to conduct several concerts of his own works over the course of the year. His post as director of the school was largely a formality; administrative duties were overseen by the secretary, Edmund Stanton. Thus Dvořák had sufficient free time for his composition work. During the first school year Dvořák was satisfied with life at the Conservatory, he discovered a number of talented pupils with whom he enjoyed working, and he particularly supported the idea of accepting African American students, whose natural musicality fascinated him. In Dvořák’s view, which he stated on repeated occasions, it was necessary to establish an American national school of music founded on African American folk music. “I am of the opinion that African American songs can provide a secure foundation for a new national school of music and I have arrived at the conviction that the young musicians here merely require prudent direction, earnest application, encouragement and the support of the public in order to co-create a new music school.”

Dvořák’s theory on the use of African American (and also Native American) music for the purposes of serious composition in America and Europe was received with a certain reticence. A series of statements appeared in the press from recognised authorities on music who expressed doubt as to whether “the primitive songs of black slaves” could become the foundation for an American school of music. A generation later Dvořák’s theory proved correct in many ways: jazz, with its roots in African American folk music, became a true musical icon of American culture. Dvořák’s own testimony was to come from his new symphony in which – as he frequently stressed – he did not actually use any melodies from Negro songs or spirituals but, through conscientious study, he absorbed their characteristic traits and, aided by them, created new musical themes – his own. These then formed the basis for the composer’s most famous work, his New World Symphony, whose premiere was held on 16 December 1893 at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Where Dvořák’s private life was concerned, the composer essentially kept up the same customs in New York as those he had maintained at home. Apart from his time at the Conservatory and outings to the station or the port (he was as intrigued by ships in America as he was by the railways), he stayed mainly at home; he rarely went out in the evenings, often preferring to play his favourite card game, darda (closely related to “Klaberjass”), with Josef Kovařík. Occasionally he attended concerts organised by the New York Philharmonic Society and only exceptionally would he visit an opera performance. During his second school year he befriended conductor Anton Seidl, with whom he would spend time in one of the city’s coffee-houses discussing Wagner and religious issues.

While the first two years of Dvořák’s stay in New work were marked by his profound impressions of his new environment, his success as a composer and satisfaction from his work at the Conservatory, the third school year was somewhat different. Various unfavourable circumstances contributed to this: Dvořák was missing Bohemia and his children who, with the exception of his son Otakar, did not return to America after the holidays, and disturbing news arrived in New York regarding Josefina Kounicová’s state of health. The overall mood in the United States was also quite different. Society was trying to come to terms with the consequences of the first major economic crisis affecting American financial institutions, known as the Panic of 1893; even the Conservatory felt its impact. The school lost the long-term sponsors upon whom it was dependent, and its president, Jeanette Thurber, was no longer able to meet her obligations towards Dvořák.

Although the payments of his monthly salary were becoming seriously overdue, the composer still did nothing about the situation. Part of the fee he was supposed to have received as stipulated in the contract apparently never materialised. Nevertheless, Dvořák did not take any legal steps which would have exacted the sum owed by the Conservatory. By that stage he had sufficient funds and one might assume that his decision not to extend his contract with the school and to return to Europe instead was fuelled by his longing for home. On 14 January 1895 he wrote to his friend Emanuel Chvála: “I will thank God when I am among my own people once more and perhaps sitting somewhere in the woods of Vysoká.” One week later, he wrote: “In short, the best thing is to sit somewhere in Vysoká, it is the best place to recoup my energy, I’ll be able to rest and my happiness will be complete.” And then: “We miss our children and we can’t wait to set sail again. Time goes slowly for us now, we go from day to day, counting how many of them we must strike off the calendar.” Dvořák’s state of mind in the autumn and winter of 1894/1895 is most clearly reflected in the atmosphere of another of his famous pieces, the Cello Concerto in B minor. Unsettled accounts on the part of the Conservatory gave Dvořák a valid reason to curtail his last school year, and he left for Europe on 16 April.

Dvořák’s time in New York – chronological profile 

15. – 27. 9. journey to New York
1. 10. officially welcomed at the New York National Conservatory
9. 10. concert and banquet in Dvořák’s honour
15. 10. the Dvořáks leave Clarendon hotel and move to 327 East 17th Street
21. 10. conducts his first concert in the USA (Te Deum, In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello)
17. 11. conducts Symphony No. 6 in D major

10. 1. – 24. 5. writes the New World Symphony
8. 5. concert in New York featuring works by Dvořák’s composition pupils
31. 5. Dvořák’s children arrive in New York
3. 6. leaves with his family for Spillville for the summer
(3. 6 – 20. 9. absent from New York)
21. 9. begins teaching again in New York
15. 12. public full rehearsal for the New World Symphony
16. 12. premiere of the New World Symphony

12. 1. premiere of String Quintet in E flat major
23. 1. conducts a concert organised by the National Conservatory of Music featuring African American musicians
5. 3. – 26. 3. writes Biblical Songs
28. 4. signs a contract with the Conservatory for a further term
19. 5. leaves for Bohemia for the summer holidays
(19. 5 – 26. 10. absent from New York)
26. 10. returns to New York
1. 11. begins work at the New York Conservatory once more
8. 11. starts writing his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor

9. 2. completes his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor (with original ending)
16. – 27. 4. returns to Bohemia for good

works written in New York 

The American Flag, Op. 102 (composition begun in Bohemia, completed in New York)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 “From the New World
(Rondo in G minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94 – instrumentation of original piano version)
(Silent Woods for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68/5 – instrumentation of original piano version)
Sonatina in G major, Op. 100
Suite in A major for piano, Op. 98
Biblical Songs, Op. 99
(Dimitrij, Op. 64 – revision of the opera; work begun in New York, completed in Bohemia)
(arrangement of the first five Biblical Songs with orchestral accompaniment)
(instrumentation of Suite in A major)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 104 (with original ending)
String Quartet No. 14 in A flat major, Op. 105 (work begun in New York, completed in Bohemia)