Hiawatha (opera), B430

Opus number


Burghauser catalogue number


When Dvořák 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 Dvořák’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. Dvořák had come across The Song of Hiawatha long before his arrival in America in a Czech translation written by his friend, the poet Josef Václav Sládek; now he was able to acquaint himself with the English original.

Dvořák was very taken with the idea to write an opera based on this theme. According to the composer’s American assistant, Josef Kovařík, Dvořák 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. 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, Dvořák 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. Dvořák, 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 Dvořák’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 Kalenský, he was still considering an operatic setting of the subject 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,
whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?

I should answer, I should tell you,
"From the forests and the prairies,
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs,
From the mountains, moors, and fen-lands          
Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
Feeds among the reeds and rushes.
I repeat them as I heard them
From the lips of Nawadaha,
The musician, the sweet singer."

Should you ask where Nawadaha
Found these songs so wild and wayward,
Found these legends and traditions,
I should answer, I should tell you,
"In the bird's-nests of the forest,
In the lodges of the beaver,
In the hoofprint of the bison,
In the eyry of the eagle!

"All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
In the moorlands and the fen-lands,
In the melancholy marshes;
Chetowaik, the plover, sang them,
Mahng, the loon, the wild-goose, Wawa,
The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
And the grouse, the Mushkodasa!"

If still further you should ask me,
Saying, "Who was Nawadaha?
Tell us of this Nawadaha,"
I should answer your inquiries
Straightway in such words as follow.

"In the vale of Tawasentha,
In the green and silent valley,
By the pleasant water-courses,
Dwelt the singer Nawadaha.
Round about the Indian village
Spread the meadows and the corn-fields,
And beyond them stood the forest,
Stood the groves of singing pine-trees,
Green in Summer, white in Winter,
Ever sighing, ever singing.

"And the pleasant water-courses,
You could trace them through the valley,
By the rushing in the Spring-time,
By the alders in the Summer,
By the white fog in the Autumn,
By the black line in the Winter;
And beside them dwelt the singer,
In the vale of Tawasentha,
In the green and silent valley.

"There he sang of Hiawatha,
Sang the Song of Hiawatha,
Sang his wondrous birth and being,
How he prayed and how be fasted,
How he lived, and toiled, and suffered,
That the tribes of men might prosper,
That he might advance his people!"

Ye who love the haunts of Nature,
Love the sunshine of the meadow,
Love the shadow of the forest,
Love the wind among the branches,
And the rain-shower and the snow-storm,
And the rushing of great rivers
Through their palisades of pine-trees,
And the thunder in the mountains,
Whose innumerable echoes
Flap like eagles in their eyries;-
Listen to these wild traditions,
To this Song of Hiawatha!

Ye who love a nation's legends,
Love the ballads of a people,
That like voices from afar off
Call to us to pause and listen,
Speak in tones so plain and childlike,
Scarcely can the ear distinguish
Whether they are sung or spoken;-
Listen to this Indian Legend,
To this Song of Hiawatha!
Ye whose hearts are fresh and simple,
Who have faith in God and Nature,
Who believe that in all ages
Every human heart is human,
That in even savage bosoms
There are longings, yearnings, strivings
For the good they comprehend not,
That the feeble hands and helpless,
Groping blindly in the darkness,
Touch God's right hand in that darkness
And are lifted up and strengthened;-
Listen to this simple story,
To this Song of Hiawatha!

Ye, who sometimes, in your rambles
Through the green lanes of the country,
Where the tangled barberry-bushes
Hang their tufts of crimson berries
Over stone walls gray with mosses,
Pause by some neglected graveyard,
For a while to muse, and ponder
On a half-effaced inscription,
Written with little skill of song-craft,
Homely phrases, but each letter
Full of hope and yet of heart-break,
Full of all the tender pathos
Of the Here and the Hereafter;
Stay and read this rude inscription,
Read this Song of Hiawatha!