Columbian Te Deum

Shortly after Dvořák's arrival, the directors of the National Conservatory of Music of America, led by Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, made arrangements for a gala "Columbus Day" Concert in Carnegie Hall, to introduce him to New York's music community. Mrs. Thurber's gallant efforts on behalf of American music and musicians were remarkable for her time. In 1886, using her social position and wealth, she established the American Opera Company, dedicated to opera sung in English. The opera company made several tours under the baton of Theodore Thomas, the leading American conductor at that time, before its funding started to dry up. She then shifted her energies to a sister institution, the National Conservatory of Music of America, for the training of American-born singers and musicians here at home. 

Mrs. Jeanette Thurber in her office, 1905. Photo courtesy of   Museum of the City of New York, The Byron Collection.

Mrs. Jeanette Thurber in her office, 1905. Photo courtesy of Museum of the City of New York, The Byron Collection.

Modeled after the Conservatoire de Paris, where she herself had studied, the conservatory was, according to the Carnegie Hall program, "founded for the benefit of Musical Talent in the United States ... conferring its benefits free upon all applicants [regardless of color or gender] sufficiently gifted ... and unable to pay." To assuage her backers, the program goes on to explain that the tuition was "loaned" to the budding artists with the understanding that they would pay it back once their careers were established.

The original plan of having Dvořák direct a new cantata setting of Rodman Drake's "American Flag" at the Metropolitan Opera House on Columbus Day, October 12th, was foiled on two accounts – the text did not get to Dvořák in time to be completed, and the Metropolitan Opera House suffered a fire that forced the cancellation of the entire 1892-93 season. Dvořák's official introduction to the New York public was moved forward to October 21st, and to Carnegie Hall. In place of the cantata, Dvořák conducted the world premiere of his Columbian Te Deum, directing the Metropolitan [Opera] Orchestra, soprano Clementine DeVera-Sapio, bass Emil Fischer, and a chorus of 300. 

The concert was preceded by a twenty-minute oration, "Two New Worlds: The New World of Columbus and the New World of Music," which was projected from the stage in those pre-microphone days by Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had become a venerable Americanist. Higginson's address could well have planted the idea for the title of Dvořák's most celebrated American work, the Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World"), which was completed within the next seven months. The speech was quoted in part in the next morning's New York Herald:

"The triumphs of our land in music ... lie in the future ... If we were all made of unmixed English blood, we might have long to wait for them ... we are not all of English blood. We stand in one of the great German cities of the world and the other great musical race of Europe is making our very byways Italian ... Let us hope that our guest tonight [Dvořák] ... may consent to transplantation and may help add the new world of music to the continent which Columbus found."

One wonders if Colonel Higginson spent time with Dvořák after the concert, perhaps talking about the Negro spirituals and ring shouts he so eloquently lauded in the Atlantic Monthly. The choice of Higginson as the keynote speaker at the concert cannot be a simple case of serendipity, for Higginson was not the only African American music resource set before Dvořák. The young Negro baritone Harry T. Burleigh was assigned to be his student assistant at the conservatory. There appears to have been a plan afoot; whether it was divine or woman-made, it would come to play itself out most dramatically.