The American Flag, Op. 102, B177
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
3 August 1892 – 8 January 1893
Premiere - date and place
4 May 1895, New York
soloists: Mary Louise Clary, Ben Davies a George W. Fergusson, conductor Frank G. Dossert
G. Schirmer, 1895, New York
Author of the text
Joseph Rodman Drake
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists (contralto, tenor, baritone)
Parts / movements
1. Lento maestoso (The Colors of the Flag)
2. Allegro con fuoco (Apostrophe to the Eagle)
3. Allegro giusto, tempo di marcia (Three Apostrophes to the Flag)
4. Finale. Lento maestoso (Prophetic)
approx. 20 min.
The president of New York’s National Conservatory of Music, Jeannette Thurber, had asked Dvořák to write a cantata to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America (October 1892); this was also the work which would introduce Dvořák to the New York public. Before the composer’s departure for America she sent him a patriotic poem by Joseph Rodman Drake entitled The American Flag, upon which the composer was to base his work. However, the text arrived too late (Dvořák was already working on an alternative by that stage, the cantata Te Deum), and he was faced with having to write The American Flag six weeks before his departure. It was obvious that he would not finish the piece before the celebrations began. He began writing the sketch for the piece at home, and he completed the score in New York, in January of the following year.
Drake’s verse is an ode to the celebration of the United States flag as a symbol of victory and freedom. This poem about a free nation appealed to Dvořák’s sense of patriotism, inciting him to create a work of great fervour and musical vibrancy. In terms of form, the piece is similar to the Te Deum – divided into several contrasting sections, each of which is usually introduced by a solo voice, followed by the choir. The cantata is exceptional in the context of Dvořák’s work as a whole, on the one hand since it is the composer’s only work written to an original English text, and also since, in its overall expression, it deviates the most from the principles of traditional European classical music. Dvořák uses a series of approaches more typical of military or wind band music (distinctive march rhythms, method of instrumentation), thus we have the evocation of a grand ceremony with a procession marching through the streets, rejoicing in the ideals of American patriotism and freedom.
The American Flag is only rarely performed. The composer himself never heard his work; he was already back in Prague at the time of its New York premiere on 4 May 1895. He had the score published with New York publisher Schirmer and, as far as we are aware, he never sought to have the work performed in his native country. The first performance of the piece on Czech (and European) soil took place long after the composer’s death, in Prague on 2 May 1931.