Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Czech in America

"My own duty as a teacher, I conceive, is not so much to interpret Beethoven, Wagner, or other masters of the past, but to give what encouragement I can to the young musicians of America. I must give full expression to my firm conviction, and to the hope that just as this nation has already surpassed so many others in marvellous inventions and feats of engineering and commerce, and has made an honourable place for itself in literature in one short century, so it must assert itself in the other arts, and especially in the art of music." - Antonin Dvorak  [source]

This post is about a foreigner defining the musical soul of another country; a foreigner creating native music of/for another country.
When we think of American music we think of Gershwin; at least listeners these days immediately identify him as the master.

"I would say that Rhapsody in Blue "sounds American" because of its jazz inflection. It sounds modern and ... urban, somehow." -- Stephanie Vardavas [Best examples of American 'classical' music]

There are more names that come to mind: Aaron Copland and Charles Ives among others.

But I want to bring to focus the work of a Czech composer, the thrilling Antonin Dvorak, who aimed at creating American music in his 'American Suite'.

A suite implies a sequence. It used to be a compendium of dance music, then it became a selection of the best bits of music written for ballet, stage-play, opera.

The American Suite is certainly a sequence, and you will notice that every piece (movement) is different. The music is expressive, and folk-like. After all, you are in the company of a composer who infused folk in classical music. And he set out to present authentic American music through this suite.

I am aware that the third movement of the suite is reminiscent of folk. I have listened to soaring Dvorak-ian melodies that remind me of folk music of my country. He has been a revelation, and a teacher.

Notice the name of the third movement: Moderato (alla pollacca) [music at end of post, you may play now].

  • Moderato - played at a moderate pace
  • alla pollaca - played with the rhythm and dance-like quality of a polonaise. The polonaise is a dance of Polish origin.

Dvorak, in his 'American' suite, takes from Poland. Why would he do that? He takes a foreign form to express American emotion. Why? Read this:

"It is a proper question to ask, what songs, then, belong to the American and appeal more strongly to him than any others? What melody could stop him on the street if he were in a strange land and make the home feeling well up within him, no matter how hardened he might be or how wretchedly the tune were played?"

For Dvorak, it was the folk of Poland, Russia, Czech that made the home feeling well up within him.
In fact, he was impressed by the music and culture of African Americans and Native Indians.

“I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants,” [source]

And no, the music still sounds 'classical'; it doesn't sound like a remix of traditional music. He wanted a soulful rendition of America. What is 'American' music in classical.

Note how we mention the impact of 'Black music' in jazz and blues? Dvorak did the same and infused native-ness in his suite and in 'The New World' (Dvorak's symphony).

Here's the third movement of Dvorak's American Suite. I recommend you listen to the fourth movement as well, which is beautiful like the sun rising from behind the fields, probably plantations, and the lake shimmering under the light.

"it (America) must assert itself in the other arts, and especially in the art of music." - Antonin Dvorak

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