If you were asked to whistle a theme from Antonín Dvořák's "New World Symphony," you might shrug. But if you attend one of the North Carolina Symphony's "Dvořák and America" performances this week, you'll likely hum, sway and march to familiar passages from the enduring classical work. Most Americans know this music by dint of being alive, regardless of the contents of their iPods. And there's a good reason for that.
In 1892, Dvořák arrived in America with the charge of developing a truly American, post-European kind of music as head of the fledgling National Conservatory of Music. Already known for drawing inspiration for his compositions from folk melodies in his native Czechoslovakia, Dvořák taught his students that African-American spirituals and Native American idioms were the foundations they should be using.
"I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies," he declared in a watershed interview with the New York Herald in May 1893. "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 developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil."
The sounds of that soil are easily recognized throughout Dvořák's American work and those of students such as Henry Burleigh, an early African-American composer. The first movement of "New World Symphony" is laced with exultant hints of old spirituals; the final movement has a tempestuous, Native American rhythm. With its warm, brass theme later immortalized in Warner Brothers cartoons, the second and most famous movement evokes both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem "The Song of Hiawatha" and a familiar spiritual originally written by a Native American in the 1860s.
"You don't hear quotes of actual spirituals; you hear echoes," explains Scott Freck, general manager of the North Carolina Symphony. "So there's a moment in the 'New World Symphony' that sounds a lot like 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' Even though it's not a direct quote, it's very reminiscent. A lot of people go, 'Oh, that reminds me of 'Swing Low''well, that's on purpose. He's borrowing that musical DNA and repurposing it."
As one might imagine at a time not even 30 years removed from the Civil War, Dvořák's double-diasporic plan didn't speak to everyone. John K. Paine, a Harvard music professor, presented one of many conflicting views in the Boston Herald a week after Dvořák's sensational interview: "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. ... As our civilization is a fusion of various European nationalities, so American music more than any other should be all-embracing and universal."
The "all" in Paine's "all-embracing" didn't include African-Americans and Native Americans, obviously. Again, these were difficult times that proved foundational for how all Americans dealt with one another in the coming century.
With "Dvořák and America," the symphony not only performs Dvořák's signature work but also aims to unpack its formative issues of racial and national identity in interdisciplinary, multimedia performances. The piece is part of a project supported by a $300,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to integrate humanities content into live orchestral performances; it was written and produced by Joseph Horowitz, a Guggenheim fellow and acclaimed Dvořák scholar. The show uses a video installation by Peter Bogdanoff, narration by former Good Morning America host David Hartman and baritone Kevin Deas and Michael Beckerman's "Hiawatha Melodrama for Actor and Orchestra."
"The interesting thing here musically is to get inside that DNA," says Freck, "and really understand where it comes from and what it means."
Horowitz's vision with this performance has to do with the replication of that DNA across disciplines. He hopes that this performance can spark a conversation about an orchestra's role in its communitynot just as a musical body, but as a humanities institution. Appropriately, he ran a three-week teacher training institute on this program, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Symphony last summer. Two AP American history teachers from North Carolina attended, and have integrated Dvořák's music into their curriculums. Their classes will be attending performances, as well as Skyping with Horowitz earlier in the week. But they won't just be talking about music.
"When I trained these teachers, I was trying to create a vertical slice of history. So we were not always talking about Dvořák," Horowitz says. "We were talking about Buffalo Bill, immigration, yellow journalism, the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the slave trade, the Indian wars, 'The Song of Hiawatha,' the paintings of Frederic Remington ... all of which connect to the Dvořák story. It's not about musicology. It's about how Dvořák was a catalyst for a national debate about American identity."
That debate is perpetual, which makes Dvořák's American moment, and this series of performances and events, particularly relevant.
"I'm hoping that people will come away knowing Dvořák and this piece better, but also with a greater appreciation for how the arts can help us understand ourselves better," Freck says. "It's a window into a time and a place that was really crucial in the evolution of our national identity. This is a way we can get at that and hopefully, by that, understand ourselves even better now."