Hiawatha (opera), B430
Burghauser catalogue number
When Dvorak was working in the United States, one of the ambitious plans conceived by the enterprising director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, Jeannette Thurber, was to promote the development of an American national opera. To this end, soon after Dvorak’s arrival, she approached him with a suitable subject, the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which is loosely based on Indian legends. The poem was first published in 1855 and immediately attracted a large readership. Dvorak had come across The Song of Hiawatha many years earlier in a Czech translation written by his friend, the poet Josef Vaclav Sladek; now he was able to acquaint himself with the English original.
Dvorak was very taken with the idea to write an opera based on this theme. According to the composer’s American assistant, Josef Kovarik, Dvorak began working in earnest on ideas for a musical setting for Hiawatha, a fact also reflected in the composer’s surviving American sketchbooks containing several pages of sketches and notes relating to the planned opera (see fig.). However, the opera was never written, the reasons for which remain a mystery. Thurber commissioned a libretto based on the epic poem (the identity of the author is not known) which was then subject to approval by a commission set up by the Conservatory. It is not entirely clear why a commission like this was necessary, but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that students at the Conservatory were to have been involved in the opera’s staging. In any case, the commission did not deem the libretto suitable for a musical setting, and Thurber assigned someone else to write a new libretto, this time in Vienna. Anxious to make a start, Dvorak began to get impatient and wrote to Thurber: “But I am longing for the libretto of Hiawatha, where is it? If I cannot have it very soon – much is lost.” Finally the new libretto arrived from Vienna. The commission reckoned that it was an improvement on its predecessor, but did not give its approval all the same. Dvorak, now disenchanted with the whole affair, abandoned any ideas to write the opera.
Despite this, “Hiawatha” in a way still played a crucial role in Dvorak’s career. Not only did it provide him with inspiration for both middle movements of his New World Symphony but, according to the composer’s biographer, Boleslav Kalensky, he was still considering an operatic setting of The Song of Hiawatha in the last year of his life, after completing his final opus, the opera Armida.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: The Song of Hiawatha, Introduction
Should you ask me,
I should answer, I should tell you,
Should you ask where Nawadaha
"All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
If still further you should ask me,
"In the vale of Tawasentha,
"And the pleasant water-courses,
"There he sang of Hiawatha,
Ye who love the haunts of Nature,
Ye who love a nation's legends,
Ye, who sometimes, in your rambles