Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Antonin Dvořák in America

Antonin Dvořák circa 1895
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) circa 1895

Antonin Dvořák arrived in the United States (with most of his family in tow) on September 27, 1893. He had been offered and had accepted the Directorship of the National Conservatory of Music of America by the conservatory’s visionary founder, Jeanette Meyers Thurber.

On his arrival, Dvořák hit the ground running. Along with his directorship, his teaching and conducting responsibilities, he was composing: he put the finishing touches on his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, also-known-as the “New World Symphony” on May 24, 1893, just eight months after having arrived in New York. Lest we think that Dvořák’s life was all work and no play, we’d observe that he was treated like royalty in New York: partied, feted, honored, and applauded wherever he went. (He also drank everyone under the table wherever he went, but that’s another story for another time.)

For all his homesickness, fear of strangers, and hypochondria, it must have been exhilarating for this former butcher’s apprentice. But it was elementally exhausting as well, and by the time he finished his E minor symphony in late May 1893, Dvořák was utterly fried. Summer break was approaching, and decisions needed to be made as to where and how to spend that break.

Spillville, Iowa

Dvořák and his wife Anna in London, 1886
Dvořák and his wife Anna (née Cermakova) in London, 1886

In this, Dvořák and his wife Anna made a very good decision. Rather than schlep all the way back to Prague for the summer (not a good idea) or spend the summer in New York City (as bad an idea then as it is now), Antonin and Anna sent for the remainder of their family. Their elder children, an aunt, and a maid all arrived in New York on May 31, at which time the clan trained to the town of Spillville in north-east Iowa: a quiet, idyllic farming village populated by native-speaking Czechs. (This turned out to be a great idea!).

It was there, in Spillville, that Dvořák spent the summer of 1893 resting and composing, surrounded by his family and an old-world Czech-charm. So revitalized was the man that he composed his String Quartet in F major in an astonishing fifteen days – between June 8 and 23 – and then composed his String Quintet in E-flat between June 26 and August 1. …

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