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    photo of a dirt road through brown fields, Iowa, January 2012, Tony Fischer

    When Dvořák Went to Iowa to Meet God

    Music that gives voice to the longing for home

    Nathan Beacom

    April 15, 2020
    17 Comments
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    • Benjamin D Polacek

      A beautiful article and one I love a lot as a Czech-American who grew up in a rural community in Nebraska probably not much different from Spillville. I hope one day to make a trip to that part of Iowa, though its quite far as I live in Sioux City.

    • Adam Lenehan

      My husband and I moved to Spillville 2 years ago; charmed by the idyllic quaintness and Dvorak's history in the town. I've heard a concert only once where a couple of musicians played his music at St. Wenceslas church which we live across from. We would love more of that! Also, I've read that during one of his walks along the Turkey River he spied a maiden bathing which inspired his opera Rusalka.

    • Jamie Hughes

      What a wonderful, thoughtful piece. After weeks of what feels like insanity, it is so refreshing to reflect, to think deeply about place and time and the value of art for men's souls. Thank you for this.

    • Randy Newman

      Can you give references for the quotes - the ones by Dvorak and the one by C.S. Lewis?

    • Saul Davis

      This is an excellent, thoughtful, beautifully written piece. My father, Lionel B. Davis, published his master's thesis on Dvorak's stay in Spillville, which we visited, and it was the first research done on his stay and how it influenced his music. A version of it was published in Minnesota History magazine, though another man forced his way into it, getting his name attached while contributing nothing of any substance.

    • Jane Maher

      Beautifully written. My father, a lifelong Iowan, was a great lover of Dvorak.

    • Beth Hoven Rotto

      Such an interesting article. Thank you! I am working on a project to bring alive music from unpublished, handwritten tune books from a Norwegian born musician and fiddler who moved to Winneshiek County (same as Spillville) in 1869 at the age of 36. He had a musical reputation in Norway and some in his family were musicians at the Trondheim Cathedral there. Some of his descendants claim that this man, Johan Arndt Mostad, was recruited to play parts for Dvorak in Spillville as Dvorak was working on his compositions there. Can Nathan Beacom or any readers here direct me to information that might help me prove this claim or find out more information about Dvorak's methods of composing and working out parts?

    • Deborah Fox

      Thank you for this wonderfully written, beautiful piece. Thank you so much.

    • Betty Kepka Schultz

      Beautifully written! Kudos to a great writer who captured the insights of an amazing composer. What a pleasure it was to read!

    • current affairs

      A very beautiful and nice post I really enjoyed reading it would like to share it on social media

    • Daniel Paul Horn

      This a beautifully written piece that takes Dvorak and his music seriously; I find him one of the most lovable of composers. My mother-in-law lives about 12 miles from Spillville, and I love walking around that little village, especially in the churchyard of St. Wenceslaus with its distinctly Old World cemetery.

    • Harry Rolnick

      A lovely piece with a very noticeable error. The second movement theme is played by an English horn, not an oboe. A particularly moving choice, since the cor anglais (actually an "angled" horn, not English) is sweeter, less assertive than the oboe. And Dvorak's orchestration was always quite perfect. Otherwise, a delightful evocative story. And to echo the comment below by Ray Sawill, "Dvorak in Love" is a terrific novel.

    • Ray Sawhill

      Lovely piece. But why no mention of Josef Skvorecky’s great 1984 novel “Dvorak in Love,” which is about this exact subject?

    • Allen Levy

      A very moving appreciation of Dvorak's music. Although there is some debate about whether the New World Symphony (From the New World) is truly "American" or nostalgic for his homeland (or both), it is a very powerful work---and not only in the largo. I went to school at the University of Iowa, so I can identify. In any case, Dvorak remains my favorite composer---a very humanist composer, very much in tune with human suffering and joy.

    • Jerry Svejda

      Thank you for this beautiful article. Having lived in Canada for over 50 years I sometime I still missed my native Bohemia / Czechoslovakia and do understand Dvorak's feeling for his homeland. Thank you Iowans for making him feel at home. And I love music Dvorak composed during his stay in your state.

    • Sr Margaret Kerry

      A beautiful reflection! Thank you.

    • Jenny Knowles

      I'm an Iowan--grew up there, but have lived elsewhere for more than 20 years. Thank you for writing this gift that melds so many good things: Dvorak, the music he found in my home state, and our great longing for h(H)ome.

    For men are homesick in their homes,
    And strangers under the sun,
    And they lay their heads in a foreign land
    Whenever the day is done.

    To an open house in the evening
    Home shall men come,
    To an older place than Eden
    And a taller town than Rome.
    To the end of the way of the wandering star,
    To the things that cannot be and that are,
    To the place where God was homeless
    And all men are at home.
    —G. K. Chesterton

    Antonín Dvořák burst into tears. His sister-in-law, Terezie, was boarding the ship for home from New York Harbor. “If I could, I should go with you,” he told her as she went up the gangway. Much as his heart broke at being unable to return to the place he loved, he was still under contract to lead the National Conservatory of Music for another year. As one of the two most famous composers of Europe (next to Brahms), he had been brought to America to teach at a premier institution and to seek out an “American music.”

    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 was a way of knitting our souls back together with the world and the God who first composed it.

    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.

    photo of a dirt road through brown fields, Iowa, January 2012, Tony Fischer

    Iowa, January 2012 Photograph by Tony Fischer

    West

    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.”

    Early in the morning on his first day in town, Dvořák was seen to be walking up and down the village streets with his pipe, just as the first fingers of dawn were playing about the horizon. Mrs. Kovařík, Josef’s mother, ran out into the street to ask the master (as students referred to him) if anything had happened. “Nothing happened and yet a great deal. Imagine, I was walking there in the wood along by the stream and after eight months I heard again the singing of birds!” In the coming days Dvořák would sit down attentively among the wheat to hear its shushing in the wind, would spend his mornings down by the Turkey River to hear its rush, would even note the splashing of cows walking through its waters.

    In the music of this period, you can identify the sounds he listened to that summer; famously, a songbird that Dvořák believed to be the scarlet tanager (actually it was likely the red-eyed vireo) can be heard singing in the American Quartet. He was suddenly alive with the musical impulse; he poured out his feelings and sensations onto the page and when finished he wrote the words, as always, “thanks be to the Lord God” under the final measures.

    The Cries of Displaced Peoples

    In traveling to America, Dvořák was on a mission to create an “American music,” to find and elevate the country’s folk tradition, even the sound of its daily life. What immediately captured his imagination was African American music, slave songs, and spirituals. At the National Conservatory, Dvořák’s music librarian was Harry T. Burleigh, a fellow transplant to New York, and a member of the Free African Church of St. Phillip’s men’s choir. The two became close. There are stories of Dvořák’s little boy, Otakar, sitting on Harry’s lap as he played the tympany. From Harry, Dvořák learned spirituals and gospel songs, and the shape and rhythm of this music would later work their way into his own compositions.

    Dvořák thought that any true American music must be based in this. “These beautiful and varied themes,” he wrote, “are the product of the soil. They are American.” In them was everything needed for a noble school of music; they were “tender, passionate, melancholic, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay.” He found arched eyebrows and outright criticism from certain quarters of New England society for seeking inspiration here, but Iowans would welcome the sound.

    For Dvořák, these songs had a deep pathos; the longing for home was their key theme. Almost by definition slaves in the south were exiles – robbed, in one way or another, of their rightful homes. This is true even for those born into slavery. To be treated as property is always an alienation. In those songs, whatever their origin, slaves found a hope for home that was identified with the company of God.

    In Iowa, according to Kovařík, Dvořák made his final changes to the largo of the New World Symphony. This second movement “is the outpouring of Dvořák’s own home-longing,” his student William Arms Fisher would write. “Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel.” Fisher would later turn the melody of this movement into a sort of spiritual titled simply “Goin’ Home.”

    But this deep, bass thrum of sadness never leads to despair or nihilism, and though it remains in Dvořák’s work, it is modulated into hope.

    It was the other music of displacement and exile that spoke to him, those melodies of the American Indians who had been forced from their lands or hemmed in on reservations. In Iowa, he would befriend John Fox of the Yankton Sioux and Big Moon, a Kickapoo who, stories have it, fell in love with Dvořák’s daughter Otilka. The second movement of his Sonatina, sometimes called the Indian lament, which he wrote on a shirt cuff on a weekend trip to Minnesota’s Minnehaha falls, and the second movement of the New World Symphony, were Dvořák’s effort to capture the spiritual cry for home that appears in the Native American traditions. He used the vocabulary of the folk music of Bohemia, of the American South, and of the Native Americans together to paint a tone poem of grief over lost loved ones and lost places. In the immensely moving final passage of the largo, the themes of loneliness are opened up into consolation as, with the English horn solo, the homeward journey begins.

    Dvořák was well acquainted not only with the loneliness of being kept far from his native place, but with that wound that comes in the loss of those we love. Despite his reputation as a cheerful and charming composer, his life was not without great pain. In 1877, after having lost his daughter Josefa in infancy, his little girl, Růžena, died from drinking a fire-starting solution, and, mere months later, his little boy Otakar (whose name was carried on by his younger brother) passed away after a short sickness. Most profoundly, this is felt in the Stabat Mater, the song of the Virgin Mary’s grief, which he composed in the midst of his own.

    But this deep, bass thrum of sadness never leads Dvořák to despair or nihilism, and though it remains in his work, it is modulated into hope. This is particularly heard in the largo. In addition to the various kinds of folk music that inspired it, Dvořák was also moved by the tale of Hiawatha, a founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. The largo is, in part, meant to describe the end of Hiawatha’s life. The old chief, weary from a life of labor, loss, and ardent service to his people, sits on the shores of the Great Sea Water and faces his own final homegoing. In the plaintive echoes of the English horn, we can imagine Hiawatha, a little afraid, a little sad, but dimly hopeful as he hears the call of the Spirit across the waters. And, with the final bass notes of the movement, we can picture him fading with his canoe into the horizon, toward the borders of eternity, to the definitive homeplace.

    Music and the Nostalgia for the Future

    It is interesting that, in Iowa, the music flowed out of Dvořák, but the speech about music slowed. In Spillville, Kovařík said, the master hardly ever talked about musical things, but he sat around and drank beers with the priest and talked to the old people about old times and old stories. When it was time to return to the city, he confessed he was very happy in Iowa (save for the summer heat), that he and his children had grown to love Fr. Bily and the people in the town, and that it should remain one of their happiest memories. In Iowa he had come into touch yet again with the internal music of things, which it seems he had, at times, struggled to see in New York. This was the music of nature, of its moods and sounds and mysterious patterns, but also the music of friendship, the music within human souls, and the music within Dvořák’s own soul, which settled contentedly into the countryside. He felt the music of these things and transposed it into audible sound. “Nothing must be too low or too insignificant for the musician. When he walks, he should listen to every whistling boy, every street singer or blind organ-grinder,” he advised.

    When Dvořák looked over the grassland vastness of Iowa, he felt that very strange and contrary coupling of hopeful contentment and melancholy we sometimes feel on summer evenings, as the stars and cicadas both come up and the grass lets off a damp, fresh smell. C. S. Lewis called this feeling Sehnsucht: “that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead … or the noise of falling waves.” Any of the world’s things may stir up in us that mysterious nostalgia for the future, this experience as if from another, higher place: “This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message,” Lewis wrote. “There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany is itself to adore.”

    This points to why Dvořák’s music draws so heavily from the world around him, why he took his musical motives from birds, swishing grass, stamping cows, waterfalls, shouts, and cries. He wanted to transcribe the theophany of nature in the language of music, which is more direct and powerful than ordinary human tongues, and which communicates things that words can only capture in partial and limited ways. The hearer is invited to share in the delight, the pleasure of the composer, which itself is a sort of prayer.

    Music suggests to us that the universe is not – could not be – cold and indifferent, but is shot through with intention, feeling, purpose.

    The hopeful beauty of things is not always, or even usually, before us, though. It may sometimes be completely forgotten in the tedium of each day, or in the sharp pains of human miscommunication and malice, or in the sufferings of injury, depression, or illness. Music can console precisely because it recalls to us the harmony, the sensibleness of things. What we want is to trust that, in the end, everything is okay, and that, at bottom, things are meaningful. What is music but a mysterious hint that this is the case?

    In music, we discover ourselves as minds recognizing the work of something like ourselves. Music is not the product of unintentional forces, but of souls. When we hear it, we know that we hear it because someone first felt, thought, wrote, and played it. In it, we recognize not only the movement of another soul, but also the intention which devised the system and the ordering power that created the possibility of harmony. It suggests to us that the universe is not – could not be – cold and indifferent, but is shot through with intention, feeling, and purpose.

    In an 1895 article in Harper’s Monthly, Dvořák gave his view on the hope and future of American music. “It is a proper question to ask,” he wrote, “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?” We can press the question a bit further: What melody could stop us in our tracks, wandering about this wild and strange world and, no matter how hardened we are, stir in us a dim memory, a dim hope, of our final home? Dvořák’s own music is an answer.

    Contributed By Nathan Beacom Nathan Beacom

    Nathan Beacom is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. His work on agriculture and the environment and other subjects has appeared in Civil Eats, America Magazine, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere.

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