April 21, 2020


When Dvořák Went to Iowa to Meet God: Music that gives voice to the longing for home (Nathan Beacom, APRIL 15, 2020, Plough)

Dvořák was fascinated by New York, but he found it no place to live, and had some difficulty completing his major projects there. Just when he was getting ready to find some way to return to Europe, his student, Josef Kovařík, convinced him to come for a while to the little town of Spillville, Iowa, instead, promising its woods and people would remind him of home. Dvořák accepted the offer with excitement and soon packed his family onto a train (he loved trains) out west. Within days of arriving in Iowa in 1893, two of his most beautiful works, the American Quartet and Quintet, spilled out of him. It was here also that he refined and titled his freshly completed symphony, From the New World.

For Dvořák, music and home came into the world as twins, and, where one was found, the other was not far behind. He was famous in Europe for writing music evocative of bohemia, but he was not a sentimentalist. His music, especially the music he made in America, dealt with the joy of home, but equally with the universal human feelings of loneliness, estrangement, and longing for a place to fit in. These feelings came especially alive during his summer in the Midwest, and through his journey to Iowa that year, we can learn something about the nature of that fundamental longing and about music's power to console it. Ultimately, for Dvořák, music was a way of knitting our souls back together with the world and the God who first composed it.

One of the first things that struck Dvořák about Iowa was its emptiness. If he had come looking for the cheerfulness of home, what he found was this expanse of prairie, this sea of grass and grain that went on forever. "It is wild here," he said, "and sometimes very sad." In the bigness of it all, he felt further from home than ever, but, when taken with a closer view - when chatting with the people, when playing organ at St. Wenceslaus, when walking in the fields in the early morning - he felt restored by a deep belonging. Iowa had for him that immense nostalgia, sad and hopeful all at once, when the familiar and the alien mingle, as when we revisit the childhood streets where our friends are no more, or when we return all alone to the site of some joyful memory.

But Dvořák quickly made friends here; the town was populated almost entirely by other Czechs, immigrants who came from the "poorest of the poor" in the old country. If he was struck by the lonesomeness of the place, he soon found also the welcome that he had come in search of. He was delighted by Father Bily, the parish priest, and by all the wonderful "granddads and grannies."

When asked about his training in music, Dvořák said that he had studied with the "birds, flowers, myself, and God."

He felt welcomed by the countryside, too. To him, the sounds of nature were God's revelation of himself to man, and, as a composer, his place was to transcribe and transfigure those sounds. Dvořák himself was of poor peasant origins, and when asked about his training in music, he said that he had studied with the "birds, flowers, myself, and God."

Posted by at April 21, 2020 12:00 AM