Antonin Dvorak spent the better part of three years in America (1892-95) as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. It was Dvorak's nationalist credentials that had attracted Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, founder of the conservatory, to select him as their new director, for at the top of her agenda was the establishment of an American school of composers. Dvorak's folk-inspired music was closely identified with the national struggle to free Bohemia and Moravia from the domination, cultural as well as political, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a role he inherited from the father of "Czechish" music, Bedrich Smetana. Mrs. Thurber offered incentives – a rather large annual fee, half paid in advance, guest-conducting appearances and commissions for new works. But Dvorak's strongly held humanist convictions made America particularly attractive. Its welcome call, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," had already beckoned tens of thousands of his Czech-speaking countrymen to emigrate to the United States. He himself loved to travel; between the autumn of 1884 and the spring of 1891 he crisscrossed the English Channel nine times to direct concerts of his music in London, Birmingham and other major cities – which explains his proficiency in English. And, here was an opportunity to introduce his entire family, his wife and six children, to the excitements of America.
Dvorak's influence on American music and musicians is evidenced by the widespread news coverage given on both sides of the Atlantic to his novel observations and "radical" statements that "the future American school will be based upon the music of the Negro," and by the distinguished and ongoing teacher-student legacy he initiated – among his dozen or so composition students at the conservatory were two who would become the teachers of Ellington, Copland and Gershwin. Correspondingly, the impact of the New World on Dvorak was enormous. He produced a flurry of "American" works, among them four that remain his best known and loved: the Symphony in E minor ("From the New World"), the most famous of the "Humoresque"s, the String Quartet in F, and the Cello Concerto. Be it money, wanderlust, or politics — whatever the combination of causes that drew Dvorak to American shores — one of the most significant cultural exchanges in American history was about to begin when Dvorak, his wife, Anna, and their two oldest children (the others would join in the spring), boarded the SS Saale in Bremen on September 17, 1892, and, after nine stormy days, debarked onto a pier in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Credit: Text in this and following related sections adapted from Maurice Peress, "Dvorak to Duke Ellington:
A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).