We'll enjoy his Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" at the end, but first we look at his influential and controversial time in the United States, itself a journey that began decades prior. Join us to learn how he was discovered, his musical styles, and some pretty funny stories!

Show Notes

Letters and newspaper article mentioned in the episode

Collection of personal correspondence and recollections from those that knew him can be found here

The May 21, 1893, New York Herald article and interview with Dvorak can be read here

Performances of Dvorak's music

 Dvorak's Piano Trio No. 3 inF-minor, op. 65 performed by Haydn Chamber Ensemble

  Dvorak's Piano Concerto performed by Sviatoslav Richter with the Bavarian State Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber conducting.




John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, WETA Classical's Evan Keely joins me for a deep dive into the life of Antonin Dvorak. Using personal letters and writings from those who knew him, we get an intimate look at who Dvorak was and what shaped him and his music. We also examine an interview in New York City in which Dvorak laid out a plan for music in the United States. Plus, stay with us to the end for a hilarious story of Dvorak at the Met and a full performance of his iconic Symphony Number Nine from the New World.

So many composers over the centuries have visited the United States, but one of them really stands out among them all and that is Antonin Dvorak because he did not just come here, he really embraced the culture and wrote music reflecting what he saw and experienced like no one else, I think. And stay with us to the end as we will be enjoying a great performance of Dvorak's New World Symphony. And we're going to explore a lot of Dvorak's life through a publication in 1954. And it's a collection of his correspondences, letters that he wrote and received and also reminiscences of him by those that personally knew him. So I think with these letters and recollections, we'll get a closer look at the man that is Antonin Dvorak.

And actually, that starts us off right away with a great description of the composer's childhood. So often, Evan, we are the ones having to piece it all together, I think.


Evan Keely: Well, we hear from Dvorak himself in these reminiscences and they're really fascinating.


John Banther: So let's go ahead and start with this. Read this for us, Evan, but I'll set the scene real quick. This is Dvorak telling us about his childhood area and it feels like we're on a hill with him. He has his arm around us and he's just beautifully pointing out all of these different things.


Evan Keely: " Look there at the little village with the long name of Nelahozeves and there just below the castle of the Prince Lobkowicz, that low building, do you see it? That's where my father had his inn, at the same time carried on his trade of a butcher. It was in that little house that I was born and here in this lovely countryside that I spent my poor childhood. The little church there, that's where I played my first violin solo and what a fuss I was in that time and how afraid I was when I tuned my fiddle and how my bow shook at the first notes. But it turned out all right. When I had finished, there was a hum and a buzz throughout the whole choir. Everybody pressed round me, my friends smiled happily at me and clapped me on the back good- naturedly. And our neighbor, the leader of the violins, gave me a whole groschen." That's a valuable coin.

" That was a happier side of my youth, the brighter moments. But even the darker side was not uninteresting though it cost me many a tear. Look there, these are the places I used to visit with my father to buy all kinds of cattle beasts. And when my father entrusted me with one or other member of the brute creation, it would often out of have sheer exuberance, give me the slip or without more ado, dragged me into the nearest pond so that my situation was not exactly enviable, but all the calamities and trials of my young life were sweetened by music, my guardian angel. That little church on the hill, there is my old acquaintance. There at fair times, I would play under the leadership of Liehmann, who was choir master there."


John Banther: What a beautiful description we have here. Part of it is you can almost kind of guess, yes, he learns some music and he plays a violin solo and he's praised and everything. But especially at the end there, imagine Dvorak, the young Dvorak trying to wrestle and wrangle these livestock and being dragged into a pond. That's right out of a movie.


Evan Keely: Yeah, this humble beginnings, his father's a butcher and has a small inn and it's very picturesque, but he's also very honest about the trials and the sufferings that he experienced as well.


John Banther: Yes, he was born September 8th, 1841. And the larger area, I think, was called Zlonice. And this is about 30 miles northwest of Prague. And yes, his father was an innkeeper and butcher, and that was what he expected to happen for Dvorak, that he would be a butcher. And it's great, we actually have the official certificate of this. He has a apprenticeship and it's very official. The We, the undersigned, Officeholders of the Honorable Town Guild of Butchers do hereby present, et cetera. He becomes an apprentice in 1854 as a butcher. And then two years later, in 1856, we see the official seal, I guess, that he has completed this. And up until this point, basically we've been talking about a teenage butcher in Bohemia.


Evan Keely: Right. He's about 15 years old or so when he finishes his apprenticeship and he's going to have a career as a butcher like his father, probably.


John Banther: But it was the organ teacher, Liehmann, that you mentioned earlier that really saved Dvorak's fate. In writings on Dvorak, his cousin Anna, said " Antonin had scarcely learned to walk when he was given the apron and hatchet that are the insignia of the butcher's trade." And Evan, just to stop for a moment, who hasn't seen a baby take its first steps and thought, you know what this baby needs, this baby needs a hatchet right now.


Evan Keely: Yeah. Like father, like son. This is what they're expecting for him.


John Banther: Definitely. And Anna continues in the letter. " Uncle, however, in accordance with the family tradition destined his sons for the butchers trade. But it was mainly due to the influence of his teacher, Liehmann, that uncle was induced to release him from following the family calling and to give him to music. When Antonin showed little promise of taking to the butchery business, uncle at last resolved to act and took the boy to Prague." This is quite a situation here because we see so many times where, in this time period, a father or someone dies in the family. And if that happened to Dvorak, he may have never gone to Prague. He would have to stay there and be a butcher to help support the family.


Evan Keely: But fortunately, he does play music in the church. As we were reading earlier, he has a reminiscence about playing the violin as a boy. And Liehmann, the choir master of the church, takes notice of this young man and recognizes that he actually has some real talent.


John Banther: And we also have some writings, I think, of Dvorak describing this experience with Liehmann.


Evan Keely: Right. Dvorak, later on in life, reminisced about Liehmann and said, " Liehmann was a good musician, but he was quick- tempered and still taught according to the old methods. If a pupil could not play a passage, he got as many cuffs as there were notes on the sheet. He was well- versed in harmony. Though, of course, his notions of harmony were different from those of the present day, and he had a good grasp of thorough base. He could also read and play figured bass fluently and taught us to do the same. But it often happened that where they were more figures and among them several with strokes, before you could work it out, you would receive three boxes on the ear." So Dvorak is describing this very strict teacher who's old school, not only in terms of his understanding of music theory and so forth, but also his pedagogical methods, which we today would call abusive. But Dvorak seems to be grateful for the musical instruction, even if he's also not so happy to remember the darker side of things.


John Banther: And it's 1857, he's about 16, and he's taken to Prague. That's about 30 miles away, and he's there to study at Organ School of the city. And we see these first trips for composers, they're often positive, right, they're seeing a new area, even if it's only 30 miles away. This is a much bigger city, I imagine. There's more to take in, there's more inspiration, new ideas, other students, new teachers. But this wasn't especially great for Dvorak.

In that book, we see another reference to his time here where he writes, " At the Organ School, everything smelt of mold, even the organ. Anybody who wanted to learn had to know German. Anyone who knew German well could be the best of the class, but if you didn't know German, you could not be the best. My knowledge of German was poor, and even if I knew something, I could not get it out. My fellow pupils looked a little down their noses at me and laughed at me behind their backs. And later on, they still laughed at me. When they discovered that I was composing, they said among themselves, just imagine that Dvorak. Do you know that he composes too? And all those who laughed at me got on better than I did."

It's hard to read. He's being bullied. But almost impossible to think Dvorak being laughed at for composing. I mean, look at him now.


Evan Keely: Clearly, the young people that he encountered there did not understand what it was they were dealing with. It's so fascinating too that he's in Prague and there's an expectation that everything is going to be in German. And of course, in this era, this is 1857, the Czech- speaking world is part of Austria and under Austrian control. And so there's this German language dominance in the culture, even in a Czech city like Prague. And a native Czech speaker, like Dvorak, is looked down upon for being who he is. So he's got multiple things against him going into this new career. And as you said, John, this should be a very exciting time in a young musician's life, and yet, he's still facing a great deal of challenge.


John Banther: But thankfully, he stays. He doesn't go home and just go back to being a butcher. He stays in Prague. And in 1858, he joins an orchestra playing the violin, I think. And this is an orchestra that plays for functions, background music, dance music, that kind of thing. But then in 1862, the orchestra was hired to play in a theater, and now, Dvorak is playing basically in a pit orchestra and he's playing opera. And this is when he falls in love with Richard Wagner, who at this time, of course, and that's a pretty hot thing coming out for Wagner in the 1860s. Those are big operas.


Evan Keely: So Dvorak has firsthand exposure to literally the latest trends in music all of a sudden.


John Banther: It wasn't until 1861, 1862 that he really starts to compose in earnest. I mean, think of some of the prodigies that we've talked about and how many operas they wrote by the time they were even a teenager. He's about 20 years old. And he writes, what, I think it's his first kind of opus, his String Quintet in A minor, and it's a nice piece. And also the String Quartet, Number One, the following year. It's also very nice. I've listened to these. They are nice, but they're not something you're going to be listening to again and again. But it is an interesting, well, starting point or jumping off point, I think, for Dvorak. Now, although he's writing music, Evan, he's not actually getting performances or being known as a composer, is he?


Evan Keely: No, he's still really trying to find his voice and hone his skills.


John Banther: And we see just a couple of years later in 1864, Anna writes, " Dvorak went for the third time to the military call- up and all suppose that the strong young man who had never had a serious illness would not come back. We had wailed his going as if it were a fact, and all the greater was then our joy when he was not accepted." Another point where it could have all gone very differently for Dvorak. He dodged the butcher trade. He gets called up for the third time in the military. He's young, strong, never been ill. I imagine the 19th century, that's a guaranteed you're in the army kind of thing.


Evan Keely: How it managed that he was rejected is a mystery to me. But luckily for the musical world-


John Banther: Yes. Let's fast forward several more years, 1870. He's in his late twenties, still no premieres of his music. He's making very little money. He's teaching piano lessons just trying to make ends meet. And even paper is becoming hard for him to afford. But in 1872, now, he's like 30, 31. He has an overture to an opera that he composed and it's performed. That's the king and the charcoal burner. One, that's great. He got it performed. I didn't see there was too much fuss or negativity about it. But also, he's had no real public performances and he's written an entire opera. I mean, that is quite a thing to put on when you're just basically writing alone in your room.


Evan Keely: And here he is, he's in his early thirties by now. He still obscure. Really, he's broke. He can't barely afford paper, but he doesn't give up.


John Banther: No. And just think, Mozart died when he was like 35.


Evan Keely: Exactly.


John Banther: Yeah. Yeah. 1873, the following year, he marries Anna Cermakova, and he did, I guess, what seems to be like a composer thing at the time where he fell in love with the sister, but that didn't work out so he married her sister, but they stayed together. So now, let's go to 1874. He's like 32 years old. He's definitely getting up there. And this is a turning point because we see him going to the state government basically asking for an official certified letter saying that he's poor. Now, that's kind of a strange sentence, I think, today. You don't need a certified letter to be broke, you can just be broke. But this was life- changing because he was applying for an Austrian state grant that awards young, poor, and talented artists, and you need a certified letter to enter. And we even have this as well, Evan.


Evan Keely: He writes this letter. " Dear sir, I should be obliged if you would be good enough to furnish me with a certificate in German confirming that I'm without means, as such a certificate must be enclosed with my application for the award of a state grant for artists. Such application to be sent by the 30th instant at the latest. Prague, 15th June, 1874. Antonin Dvorak." So this is roughly analogous to what we would think of as applying for a scholarship, a need- based scholarship or declaring bankruptcy. But it really gives you an indication of his circumstances. He really and truly is down and out.


John Banther: And along with his letter, he submits 15 works for this grant. And it seems like that was unusual, that's a very large amount of music to be sending in. And also he was sending in large scale works like symphonies in addition to songs and chamber music and more. And the committee included the very influential Eduard Hanslick at the time and the head of the state opera. And Johannes Brahms would be on the committee too, but he joined a little late, I think, to actually do the voting on Dvorak. But Hanslick made an announcement in the paper. Here is Dvorak, he's won this prize. He's basically totally unknown. And he included all of these works including these symphonies and more.


Evan Keely: Right. At this point, he's written up to, I think, four symphonies, at least one complete opera, a whole bunch of chamber music. He has a very prolific career from what we know now. But even at this point in his life, in his early, mid- thirties, he's already composed pretty significant body of work. And here he's finally starting to get noticed.


John Banther: And you'd think this would be an obvious big shift for Dvorak, right? But he ended up keeping his organ job and he was composing on the side. Maybe because he was surviving up to this point. I imagine you might be a little nervous just to go ahead and quit right away when you get some extra money in just one year. But in 1876, he won again, and then he was able to quit his post and focus on composing. And then he won again in 1877. And this is where, Evan, we really start to see some influences when it comes to the Czech style with the symphonic variations and the Moravian duets that were included here. It really feels like, at least at this time, Dvorak has the whole world in front of him, I guess.


Evan Keely: Well, 1877, John is also a very significant moment in Dvorak's life because it is at that point that Johannes Brahms is on this panel, and Brahms becomes aware of Dvorak's music, and he is immediately, unlike so many others that Dvorak has encountered earlier in life who seem to look down their noses at him. Here is one of the great composers of the time discovering another genius. And the two of them begin this lifelong connection where Brahms is a fervent supporter of Dvorak's music, and it really makes a huge difference for Dvorak professionally and personally.

So Brahms has looked at these works of Dvorak. This includes the Moravian duets, the symphonic variations. He's very impressed. In December of 1877, he writes a letter to his publisher, Simrock. He says, " Dvorak has written all sorts of things, Czech operas, symphonies, quartets, and piano music. There is no doubt he is very talented." So this is, coming from a very reserved person like Johannes Brahms says, high praise. And then later that the following spring, April of 1878, Brahms writes to Simrock again. " I should not have written if had not been for thinking of Dvorak. I don't know what further risk you are wanting to take with this man. I have no idea about business matters or what interest there is for larger works. I do not care to make recommendations because I have only my eyes and my ears, and they're all together my own. If you should think of going on with it all, get him to send you his two string quartets, major and minor, and have them played to you. The best that a musician can have, Dvorak has, and it is in these compositions. I am an incorrigible Philistine. I should publish even my own works for the pleasure of it. In short, I cannot say anything more than that I recommend Dvorak in general and in particular."

So again, here is Brahms being very forthright with his publisher. So this is, on multiple levels, a huge boon for Dvorak. He has the support of this great, well- respected composer who is also very successful in the publishing industry. And Brahms is specifically recommending Dvorak's music to his publisher, giving his own very clear stamp of approval on Dvorak's music. So this is huge for Antonin Dvorak.


John Banther: Yes, and Brahms had a great quote. I don't know when he said it, if it was later or earlier, at some point. But it was something like what would occur to me as a main theme for a piece occurs to Dvorak as, by the way. For Brahms, he works hard and he cultivates this beautiful theme, and that takes all this work. But for Dvorak, it's just like, oh, by the way, here's a beautiful theme. Oh, by the way, here's another one, just so on and so on.


Evan Keely: It's really beautiful to look at the mutual respect between these two great composers.


John Banther: So let's look at the Czech influence of this here for a moment. These folk music influences. One thing I notice about listening to Czech folk music, which I know basically nothing about, is that the melodies, they seem slightly atypical or harder to follow in my ears, in my mind compared to my lived experience. So it's always funny. They sound beautiful and they sound like folk music, but it's like it turns in slightly different directions than you expect. And in 1878, he has his Slavonic dances, and this is a huge coup for him, basically. And he's not using specific Czech melodies, kind of like how we heard with Sibelius and how he didn't use specific folk melodies. Dvorak doesn't do that here, but he's using dances that are of the tradition, the dumka, the polonaise, the polka, and so many more that I can't pronounce. Also, the mazurka. So it's along those same lines of not using exact melodies, but incorporating that language into this orchestral music. And it seems like it was explosive at the time, the Slavonic dances.


Evan Keely: Well, this is a very, again, we were talking earlier, John, about the political and cultural situation. To be Czech in Europe at this time in history is to be to some extent under the thumb of a German- speaking Austrian influence. And here is this very gifted Czech composer who is expressing himself in a very distinctive way. And as you said, John, there's a distinctive sound to Czech music. And as you were pointing out, he's not using folk melodies specifically. But like you and I discussed with Sibelius a few months ago, there's this sense that it sounds like the music of a particular culture, even if it isn't a direct quote there from, and this is a very exciting development for Czech music.

Dvorak, of course, is not the first to express a Czech pride, a Czech nationalism through music. I think of a composer like Smetana who really leads the way there. But Dvorak is really taking it to another level. And again, as you said, John, the success of these Slavonic dances, the popularity of this music is a huge boost, both to Dvorak personally and financially and professionally, but also elevating this Czech style to a much wider audience really kind of changes the situation.


John Banther: I hear that too. It really sounds like Dvorak just took it and just elevated it into the stratosphere. And the influences of Czech also thematic. A couple decades later, he writes some fantastic symphonic poems, but also scary because they're based on these fairytales at this time, which are, I don't know, more scary than I think watching something on Disney today.


Evan Keely: Yeah, the Noon Witch is a good example. It's really terrifying bedtime stories that leave you lying awake at night having or falling asleep having nightmares.


John Banther: No thanks. So in the 1870s, now that he's won this prize, he's had these big hits, things like Slavonic dances, things continue as you might expect. He has a violin concerto, he has another symphony. He's up to six now. And actually Hans Richter asked him to compose that one for the Vienna Philharmonic, but there were, I guess anti- Czech sentiments and beliefs within the orchestra as well, and that caused a delay in performance and then, ultimately, a cancellation of it. And I didn't find in any letters that I could see that, between Dvorak and Richter, talking about these specific reasons like why it was delayed as to the anti- Czech sentiment. But I just don't know how much Dvorak was fully aware of that.


Evan Keely: But of course, he'd been dealing with this his whole life. So even if he wasn't aware of that in this particular instance, it is unfortunately a reality of this part of Europe in this era, the 1870s.


John Banther: So maybe he saw it being delayed, but he could also read between the lines of that.


Evan Keely: It's entirely possible, who knows? But as you said, John, we don't have a letter or anything, any solid evidence, but we do know that these anti- Czech attitudes among Austrian German- speaking musicians was not unheard of even in that era.


John Banther: Now, Dvorak gets another huge success with his Stabat Mater, which I believe he completed in 1880. This raises his international appeal, especially in Britain when it had its premier there in 1883. Apparently it was just explosive. The whole house came down basically, and it prompted Dvorak to visit in 1884, and he wrote this. " At the concert, my appearance was greeted with a storm of applause, the general enthusiasm from item to item. And at the end, the applause was so great that I had to thank the audience again and again. At the same time, the orchestra and choir overwhelmed me with the heartiest ovations. In short, it turned out better than I could have ever hoped for." This is another letter from a composer who goes to England or London and has basically a whole new experience, a mind- blowing experience. We see these letters where they say they were so happy, and they also often mentioned they paid me so much too.


Evan Keely: Yeah, yeah. And having a great success in a city like London in this era really is extending his reach further and further throughout Europe.


John Banther: And of course, he would return to that area again in 1885 to premiere his Seventh Symphony. And in 1887, Hans Richter conducted a performance of his symphonic variations there and said, " At the hundreds of concerts I have conducted during my life, no new work has been as successful as yours." And this might continue, as you expect. He's getting more popular, more praise, he's writing more music. He gets an honorary degree from Cambridge. He's also given a position at the Prague Conservatory. It took a little convincing, but they got him there and things seem to be going quite well. But his life and his music would change not too long after this, when he's invited to head a conservatory in the United States, and we'll get into that right after this.

So now it's 1891, Dvorak is in his 50th year, and he receives an invitation to head the National Conservatory in New York. Now, classical music in the United States is still quite in its infancy. The New England Conservatory was founded 24- ish years earlier, but it was like everything else at that time, I think, musically, it was really geared towards Europe, European standards, taste, sound, and more. It didn't seem like there was an interest in cultivating an American sound at that time.


Evan Keely: Yeah, this is the era of composers like we think of the Boston Six, so- called, the Second New England School, composers like John Knowles Payne and Amy Beach who are writing really interesting music, but you listen to the music, it is still very much steeped in European, I would say even very largely a Germanic European tradition. As you said, John, institutions like the National Conservatory, New England Conservatory, this is a new era in American music, and it's still very much looking across the Atlantic.


John Banther: We see the invitation. He actually writes a friend asking for some advice. He says, " I am going to America for two years. They want me to take the directorship of the conservatory and to conduct 10 concerts of my own compositions for eight months, and then four months vacation for a yearly salary of $15, 000. Should I take it or should I not? Write me a word or two." In addition to those concerts, you also had to teach, I think, three hours a day, composition, instrumentation. But for those three hours a day and the works and the concerts, he got paid $ 15,000 or in today's money, $ 500,000, a half a million dollars.


Evan Keely: A lavish, lavish salary. The National Conservatory was very well- funded by private donors, and they really wanted to get Antonin Dvorak in there because he was, at this point, hugely respected in Europe, and what a coup to have persuaded him to come over to New York.


John Banther: Yes. And just think just 20 years earlier, he was asking the government to certify he's broke to now getting that half million dollar salary. And this is really headed up by Mrs. Jeanette Thurber. She has a lot of wealth and a lot of connections, and she's the one that invites him over to help cultivate this sound and to, well, raise up new music in the United States. So he takes the job, as we know, he goes to New York City. Just imagine that life altering experience, packing up everything and taking your family across the world. But he does this, and in 1893, a year later, there is an article, an interview on Dvorak and his work at the Conservatory, and it's in the New York Herald. So we want to read some of this article. It has some really eyeopening things here on Dvorak and also what was happening here musically as well. I'll read a little bit here.

" The great Bohemian composer has just ended his first season of musical exploration in New York, and his opinion ought to stir the heart of every American who loves music. I am now satisfied. He said to me that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year, I was impressed with this idea and it has been developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. I would like to trace out the individual authorship of the Negro melodies for it would throw a great deal of light upon the question I am most deeply interested in at present. These are the folk songs of America, and your composers must turn to them.

All of the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people. Beethoven's most charming Scherzo is based upon what might now be considered a skillfully handled Negro melody. I myself have gone to the simple half forgotten tunes of the Bohemian peasants for hints in my most serious work. Only in this way can a musician express the true sentiment of his people. He gets into touch with the common humanity of his country."

Now, this is quite something to see from Dvorak. He's saying this so plainly, and so matter of fact, like he's just holding a mirror in front of us, or as if he's just telling you, oh, you dropped your wallet on the ground. Oh, that's the music you're looking for. Oh, it's just right there. Don't worry.


Evan Keely: We could do an entire season of Classical Breakdown just on this 1893 New York Herald article about Dvorak and his comments about Black music being the true music of America and the responses to it. It's a fascinating and deeply thought- provoking thing to encounter.


John Banther: Yes, and unfortunately, this idea, it's basically antithetical to what was being sought out for music in the United States, and you can hear that in some of what Dvorak writes. He doesn't fully understand the situation and the history in the United States, especially when he says, I want to find who wrote this melody or that. And there was response to this, negative response. And the Boston Herald in that same year, 1893, composers signed on in disagreement, like Amy Beach, George Chadwick, and John Knowles Payne, and it was John Knowles Payne who wrote some of just the worst things I've ever read from a composer, most of which I'm not going to read except for this line. He wrote, " In my estimation, it is a preposterous idea to say that in the future, American music will rest upon such an alien foundation as the melodies of a yet largely undeveloped race." I mean, just one of the craziest things you read from a composer and one of the most wrong predictions you can make in the 19th century.


Evan Keely: Couldn't be more wrong on so many levels.


John Banther: Yes.


Evan Keely: Morally wrong, factually wrong, artistically wrong, yeah.


John Banther: So today, virtually all music in the United States is inspired or directly from Black music, and this was an opportunity for classical musicians and composers. That was just totally squandered, I think, at this time. There could have been a different direction, but it wasn't taken.


Evan Keely: Well. It seems like Dvorak's perspective, however naive it may seem to us now, eventually did prevail. But at the same time, it's fascinating to me. It's true that Dvorak obviously wasn't an American. There were things that he couldn't maybe have readily understood coming from another country, but surely he knew enough about the history to have recognized that this would be a controversial statement. So there's a kind of ingenuousness to what he's doing, and it is obviously very well- meaning, and I think he, in fact, did do a great deal of good in terms of his perspective and the things that he accomplished at the National Conservatory. But it's also this yet another case of a well- meaning person who, without understanding the nuances of the situation and without being in closer relationship with everyone involved, is maybe missing some things that are important.

We also see this, and again, there could be whole episodes of many a podcast on these very complex topics. Dvorak seems to think that he's had an encounter with Indian music and indigenous music, and from what we know now, that's not really a very sophisticated way of looking at what he had encountered. And there's a whole history of persons of European ancestry trying to understand indigenous music in this hemisphere and not always with benign intent or with benign result. And again, this is a hugely complex topic, but Dvorak means well and does well. And also, I think there's a lot of things that he didn't understand, which maybe he should have, maybe he couldn't have. There's a lot of unanswered questions and a lot to think about.


John Banther: Also, in this article, there is an announcement from Mrs. Jeanette Thurber who's really financing, helping out this conservatory, saying that the school, the conservatory, will now admit Black students, and that there is no limit on how many can apply, and that there is also free tuition. I couldn't tell if it was for everyone. I think the school was more tuition- free, but I didn't know if it was all tuition free in this point. But that's what also brought Black students to the school, and musicians and singers and composers like Harry Burley, who was a big influence and sung spirituals, exposed Dvorak to spirituals, which also helped him, I believe, with his Symphony Number Nine, which we all know and love, maybe a little too much in this country from the New World Symphony. And he's doing this work at the Conservatory, but he's homesick a bit. And now, I imagine New York had a Czech community, but it was actually Iowa, Evan, wasn't it, that he would find more community and even solace.


Evan Keely: Right. So there were probably some persons of Czech ancestry or from Czech lands in New York, but it was in Iowa that Dvorak found a community of Emigres, and he writes about it in this reminiscence. " The state of Iowa, to which we're going, is 1300 miles from New York. But here, such a distance is nothing, 36 hours by express, and we are there. It is farther than from where you are to London. Very soon we're going to see Buffalo, a town near Niagara, and so we shall see the gigantic waterfalls. How I'm looking forward to it. And now what shall I write to you about? I have not much work at school so that I have enough time for my own work, and I'm now just finishing my E minor symphony. I take great pleasure in it, and it will differ very considerably from my others. Well, the influence of America must be felt by everyone who has any nose at all."


John Banther: I love this one, Evan. One because it points out a problem that still exists today. People from Europe coming over and not realizing these places, these towns are very, very far apart. I had someone, they were playing in New York and they said, " Oh, I have a concert tonight in New York. Can we meet in DC for lunch?" It's like, " I don't know. I don't know about that one." But we also see Dvorak saying, " this will differ considerably from my others", and it definitely does. And I think he did find some solace in this town in Spillville.

There's a reminiscence or a description of his time there by someone, I think his assistant that was with him, saying, the master's day in Spillville was more or less as follows. " He got up about 4: 00 and went for a walk to the stream or the river and returned at five. After his walk, he worked. At seven, he was sitting at the organ in church. Then he chatted a little, went home, worked again, and then went for a walk. He usually went alone here. He had none of the nerve storms, which he sometimes suffered from in Prague, and often nobody knew where he had gone. Almost every afternoon he spent in the company of some of the older settlers. He got them to tell him about their bitter and difficult beginnings in America. In Spillville, the master scarcely ever talked about music. And I think that was one of the reasons he liked being there and why he felt so happy there."

This seems quite revealing that he seems at peace. He seems at happy. He's not talking about music all the time. In other letters, Dvorak mentions going to London or Vienna or here or Prague, whatever. His face, his name, it's all over the papers and everything with all these concerts. Now, he goes to this place and it's just, I imagine some people are just like, who are you?


Evan Keely: It seems to be such a beautiful retreat for him though, and he's really able to, not only be at peace with himself in terms of ... This comment about nerve storms is fascinating to me. I'm not entirely sure what it means, but he clearly seems very content. And of course, while he's there, he's able to compose some of his best known and most memorable music.


John Banther: Yes, the Ninth Symphony being won and the premier was a big success. And also his American Quartet was composed, I think, fully in Iowa. And that's also my favorite quartet of his. I never get tired of listening to this. And it has a kind of, I don't want to say relaxed sound, that sounds kind of a cop out, but there's a solemn feeling of just freedom here and openness that I don't hear in his other quartets.


Evan Keely: Yeah, there's really a sense of vitality. And yeah, he really seems to have fully owned his own genius in that setting.


John Banther: And after a summer in s Spillville, Iowa, he heads back to New York. In 1894, he writes his very groundbreaking cello concerto, which we did a whole episode on, episode number 57. But even with the time with his family and culture in Iowa, maybe some places in New York, he's still homesick and we see a description of a situation, basically. His sister- in- law writes this. She wrote, " On my departure from New York when they all accompanied me on board, Dvorak broke into tears and said, 'If I could go, I should go with you and were it only between decks.'" He's so desperate to go back, he'll get at the bottom of the ship with a bag of chips and just, get me when we're there.

And so eventually in 1895, Dvorak does return back home. And part of it may have been influenced by, well, the conservatory things as it happens sometimes when it's being financed are really pushed by one person. Jeanette Thurber had financial issues. His salary was cut in half. He was paid irregularly. So I think it was probably nice for him to return back to Prague in 1895. And it's the last decade of his life, although he would not know that at the time. And while he's in Prague, Johannes Brahms is trying to woo Dvorak and his family to move to Vienna. And it seems like, Evan, this shows how much Dvorak was Czech through and through because he would not go, would he?


Evan Keely: This is really yet another indication of his pride in himself and in his heritage. And yeah, Vienna, of course, a great place to be if you're a composer, but Dvorak has his loyalties and his integrity, and he stays where he feels he belongs.


John Banther: Yes. And not even the promise of using Brahms' money is enough to get him to Vienna. And in 1900, Dvorak completes his opera, Rusalka. Now, it's just one of 11 that he composed over the stretch of this time, and it's the most popular one. I think it's still the most performed one as well, and some beautiful moments in here in opera. Dvorak is not someone I always go to for opera. Usually, it's like symphonies and quartets, but this is one I listen to and I don't find myself trying to switch to something else after 10, 15 minutes. It just kind of plays and I enjoy the whole thing.


Evan Keely: Yeah, Rusalka does have an enduring popularity around the world. I think it's really probably the only Dvorak opera of the 11 that he composed that is regularly performed outside of the Czech- speaking world.


John Banther: And he's turning 60- years- old in 1901. And just think about his experience now coming up from the land, being dragged into a pond by cattle, learning his instrument, going to school, joining an orchestra, starting to compose, all these things, winning the prize, New York City. He comes back, and his birthday, in 1901 for his 60th is like a national holiday. Six of his operas are played, I think, all around the same day or so around his birthday. Also other works as well. He was out of town for this. He wasn't even in town for this. He wouldn't come back until November. That's when there were even more big parties and things that he had postponed, it sounded like. He was absolutely treasured, and still is, I imagine there.


Evan Keely: Oh, I'm sure that he is. And it's, again, similar to our conversation a while ago about Jean Sibelius. There's that kind of national hero status that this composer is granted by virtue of having expressed the pride and the uniqueness of the culture through music.


John Banther: And in 1903, he completed, at least his last published work, the Overture to Armida, and this is an opera he had just finished a little bit ago. And it was the following year, in 1904, that Dvorak would die after being ill for about five weeks. And it's just he had an incredible life with all these experiences. It's unfortunate that something like the flu or a stroke or something made him sick for several weeks and took his life. Thankfully, he got a lot done in this timeframe.


Evan Keely: Dvorak is really a very prolific composer, and many of us are very well acquainted with a small number of his works. We all know the Ninth Symphony. We all know the American String Quartet. I shouldn't maybe say we all do, but these are very popular works. So a small number of works of Dvorak that have a very wide reach, and that's wonderful. They are great works. They're worth knowing and hearing again and again, and exploring and studying and playing and enjoying. But he composed such a wealth of music, John. If you look at all nine of these symphonies, if you look at all of these string quartets, all the chamber music, 11 operas, many of which are not well known outside of the Czech- speaking world, there's this huge wealth of really ingenious music that this marvelous composer bequeathed to the world. And I find the more I study and listen to Dvorak's music, the more of it I encounter, the more I appreciate his genius.


John Banther: And I'm feeling the same way. Now, there is one more moment here I want us to talk about. It was about a month before his death, and it's just a funny situation that I think he went through that I think we still experience today. Why don't you read us, Evan, what was described here in this situation that Dvorak experienced?


Evan Keely: This is a reminiscence from a colleague who writes of Dvorak. " He was afraid of his illness At the beginning of 1904, we were sitting in the Imperial Cafe when Dvorak entered. His face was overcast, and he complained of a pain in his side. The doctor said, it is lumbago, lower back pain. The composer, Malotte, who was present said, well- meaningly, " Sometimes they say it's lumbago. My brother- in- law had pain like that, and they said, too, that it was lumbago, but it was the kidneys. And my brother- in- law died within a month." Dvorak got terribly angry. " What are you telling me that for? Was anybody asking you about it? You want to frighten me? Et cetera, and so forth. He thundered out at the unhappy Malotte, who, unfortunately, proved to be right.


John Banther: I love this. Now, did lower back pain really have anything to do with what took his life ultimately? I kind of doubt it. He was in his sixties. I have lower back pain. I think it'd be remarkable if he didn't, but I think it definitely brings him to a more familiar human mortal level for us, and a kind of anecdote that I think a century and 20 years later, you can chuckle a lot. If this happens to me, you can laugh. That's fine. This situation where I think we've all seen it one time or another. Who asked you? No one asked you for your opinion.


Evan Keely: Well, there's a poignant quality to this also, John. Here he is feeling anxious about his health and this, well- meaning buffoon. " Oh yeah, my brother had that too and he died." This is not helpful. But again, it's an insight into Dvorak as a person, this very sensitive person, someone who feels things very deeply. We certainly hear that in his music, and we certainly have an opportunity to encounter that side of Dvorak reading these reminiscences, others wrote about him as well as his own letters.


John Banther: And his legacy has really raged on with his Ninth Symphony, which we'll enjoy in a few minutes. And although, I think fewer people today can recognize that tune in the second movement, if you just sang it to someone on the street. Anyone who's drawn to this art form knows the symphony quite well. It's usually, or very often, number one on our own annual Classical Countdown that we do in November, and we're not tired of it yet. But there's one more story that I want to read, Evan, before we get to the symphony, because I find this so funny. It's just another situation with Dvorak from his assistant or one of his colleagues. They said, " One day the master asserted that the best of Wagner's operas was Tannhauser with this Anton Seidl. And that was a big conductor at the time he was conducting the Metropolitan Opera.

Anton Seidl, with this, did not agree, and it gave rise to a long debate, which did not finish that day. As soon as they met the next day, however, Seidl began. " Well, I was thinking over yesterday's discussion the whole evening. I considered it from every angle, and I admit that you are right. From the point of view of opera to Tannhuser is the best. But do you note Siegfried when the master said that he had only seen it once, Seidl promised to send tickets for the next performance at the Metropolitan when he would be conducting. The tickets came for seats in a box in the so- called Diamond Horseshoe, a row of boxes whose holders arrive at the performance at the last moment, or usually even after it has begun, bedecked and overloaded with diamonds. All in evening dress. Of all this, however, we at this time knew nothing.

The master put on an ordinary dark suit. I chose, from my modest wardrobe, the darkest I had. Whenever the master was to go anywhere, he was always in a hurry to be there in time. And on this occasion, he made more than usual haste. The attendant looked at us in considerable surprise, perhaps because of our dress, perhaps because he was not accustomed to showing people to their boxes half an hour before the beginning of a performance. The auditorium was still practically empty, and the master, having pulled out his watch and looked at it, said, 'We've been in rather too greater hurry.' Then we watched the stalls gradually filling up, and that helped us to pass the time. Suddenly, voices were to be heard in the neighboring box. Master looked around and immediately moved back one seat. I followed suit. The neighbors had come in evening dress, and those who came after them the same.

And so we finally reached the wall each in a corner and waited for the lights to go down. At last, the opera began. Roundabout ceaseless chatter. The master looked at the talkers, but it had no effect. So we paid no more heed to them, and although their talking was disturbing, listened attentively. After the first act, we went home. Our attendant, again, looked at us curiously, perhaps thinking to himself, strange customers these. When others are only beginning to come, they go home. At their usual meeting, Seidl asked the master the next day what he thought of Siegfried. The master confessed straight away that he had gone home after the first act. The rendering, what he had heard of it, was excellent, but that he had had enough of that perpetual and constantly repeated rhythm. That was a long story there, but I think that is just so funny.


Evan Keely: So funny. Not understanding that for a lot of people in that era, going to the opera was much more of a social location than an artistic experience. He just wants to hear the music, but people are socializing. They're showing off their diamonds and so forth, their elegant attire. And here is this great composer, one of the greatest composers alive, trying to enjoy this music of this other great composer, and he can't even pay attention because there's so much chitchat going on in the middle of the performance. Which today, of course, unheard of. But in that era, quite common.


John Banther: And just think about it from the concertgoers point of view. You've gone in, you're in your most beautiful new dress, you're decked out in your jewelry, and your hair is all perfect. And then you're in there, you jump in in the last second, and then there's this strange, long- bearded man in a dark suit shushing you. Just imagine Dvorak shushes you and you ignore him. That's kind of legendary too. I think musicians have all been in a position before where you go to something and then you realize maybe we should not have come to this, and then you leave after the first act. But a great thing there. So that is Dvorak's life. We've really gotten a great look at him and his experiences through his letters and recollections of those that knew him. So now it's time to enjoy that performance we've been promising all along, Evan. So why don't you bring us in here.


Evan Keely: As you said, John, very frequently, number one, or at least in the top three of the annual WETA Classical Countdown, Antonin Dvorak's Symphony Number Nine in E minor from the New World. And we'll hear this performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Rafael Kubelík.