Dvořák's Trip to Spillville

In late May 1893, within a week of the announcement of the completion of his "New World" Symphony, Dvořák and his reunited family would leave by train for Spillville, Iowa, a quiet little Czech-speaking farm village, where they would spend their summer. It was Joseph J. Kovařík, an American of Czech ancestry who told Dvořák about Spillville. Kovařík, who had transferred his violin studies from the Prague Conservatory to the National Conservatory of Music of America at Dvořák's urging, earned his keep as the maestro's American secretary and amanuensis. They made a large and lively group as they boarded the train at the Grand Central Depot at 42nd Street and Park Avenue - the Dvořáks, their six children, and an aunt (not Josefina) and a cook. En route they sampled the thrills of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, the 1893 World's Fair.

"The Fair" celebrated America, its industry, and its people. It was among the first events of its kind to honor the achievements of women. Almost overnight, the Fair and Chicago became a gathering place for the nation's gifted and talented from every scientific and artistic discipline. Little remains of the original Fair. Surreal silver tint photographs offer proof that a magnificent White City, a combination of Venice's Piazza di San Marco and the Roman Forum, arose for one glorious summer, only to disappear like Atlantis.

The Dvořák family detrained in Chicago on June 4, 1893, to spend a day at the Fair. They would visit again on their way back to New York at the end of the summer. Dvořák himself returned to Chicago from Spillville in early August for an extended ten-day stay. His first four days were spent in preparation for a gala concert he conducted on "Bohemian Day," August 12th, an "honor day" event. The rest of the time was for taking in the sights. A contemporary diary reports that Dvořák spent part of each day sightseeing and visiting. At night he went to the Austrian restaurant on the Midway, where he took his meals and enjoyed imported Pilsner beer. The Tavern [Old Vienna] also boasted a touring (strolling) brass band. The band members got quite excited when Dvořák first came into the restaurant ... and began to play Austrian and Slovenian dances. Dvořák soon discovered that the musicians were largely Czech and got absorbed in conversation with them.

It is more than likely that Dvořák also heard Edison's early phonograph and saw a demonstration of projected images, harbingers of the immense changes that the performing arts would undergo in the approaching century. Dvořák was besieged by visitors. Among them was Theodore Thomas, conductor of the Chicago Symphony and overall music director of the Fair, who arranged to have a string quartet come to Dvořák's hotel, the Lakota, to read through the "American Quartet," just completed in Spillville.

In 1961, Dvořák's son Otakar wrote a memoir about his boyhood trip to America, and although sixty-eight years had passed, he never forgot the Indians he met in Spillville. He described them as "medicine men" belonging to a tribe of thirty or so Iroquois who lived in tents "south of town, across the creek. ... My father was interested ... in their songs and instruments... Father received photos from the Indians. These photos were among my father's prize possessions." 

The Dvořák family returned to New York but not before one last stop at the Fair. When Dvořák finally detrained into the smoke and soot of the Grand Central Depot, he was carrying the completed scores of his Symphony "From the New World" and his new "American" String Quartet. They would both be premiered at Carnegie Hall during the 1893-94 season, the most triumphant of his life.