Transatlantic Debate

"In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him." - Antonín Dvořák

Dvořák's famous announcement is often foreshortened, omitting perhaps his most important appraisal, "The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him," an acute observation that only a few years later would find a parallel in "the weird and intoxicating effect" on listeners of the Scott Joplin rags, as noted by the composer himself.

Narratives about the infectious peculiarities of African-rooted music appear throughout American history. Even the earliest settlers of the New World fell under its spell. The distinguished German-born musicology professor Kurt Sachs studied the origins of the dances found in 17th-century European classical suites, among them the allemande, courante, and gigue. Sachs, who took great satisfaction in upending assumptions, discovered that the courtly dances known as the sarabande and the chaconne could be traced back to Africa via 16th-century dances of New Spain and the Caribbean. According to Sachs, the "lewd lascivious" Creole/African zarabanda, a dance so beguiling it was outlawed by the church, metamorphosed over time into the slow, stately sarabande. But "even more than the sarabanda," the African-derived chacona, also known as the chacona mulata, was sensuous and wild, the "most passionate and unbridled of all dances."

In time, America became entranced with the tunes and stories of Negro minstrelsy; "Oh them Golden Slippers" and "Old Black Joe" were huge popular hits. Concertgoers came to enjoy spirituals and slave songs as presented in formal settings by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their many imitators. Nevertheless, it would take the honest enthusiasms of a world-class Czech composer to thrust "Negro" music into the center of the serious (read "European") music establishment.

The oft-quoted New York Herald interview that begins, "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music," came out on Sunday, May 21, 1893, traveled under the Atlantic at the speed of light and made the front page of the Paris Herald the following morning. Paris Herald stringers were quickly dispatched to Vienna and Berlin to interview famous musicians about Dvořák's "curious" theory. 

Among those interviewed were: Joseph Joachim, a distinguished violinist and pedagogue, who may have already been exposed to American Negro music through his student, Will Marion Cook - soon to be Dvořák's student at the conservatory; Anton Rubenstein, the pianist, composer, and founder of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory; and Anton Bruckner, the Viennese composer and organist. So strong was the notion of German musical authority that French musicians of note, such as Camille Saint-Saëns, conveniently nearby in Paris, were not consulted. 

Their reactions to Dvořák's theory appeared on the front page of the Paris Herald on three consecutive days, and, thanks to undersea cable, in the New York Herald in a single condensed article on Sunday, May 28th, on page 20. What would normally take several days by steamship, was being accomplished in hours. But there was more. Elsewhere in the New York Herald Sunday's, May 28th, edition, on page 31, Dvořák exploded the time bomb that had been ticking all week: 

"ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK ON NEGRO MELODIES / THE BOHEMIAN COMPOSER EMPLOYS THEIR THEME AND SENTIMENTS IN A NEW SYMPHONY. Dr. Dvořák's explicit announcement that his newly completed symphony reflects the Negro melodies, upon which ... the coming American school must be based ... will be a surprise to the world." 

The editorial page also took notice of Dvořák's Negro-melody idea, describing it as a "welcome utterance." With two bold strokes Dvořák empowered American musicians of all stripes, by setting a "great and noble" example, meanwhile apprising the general public about something they already suspected but were perhaps afraid to acknowledge.

Dvořák's notions about the future of America's music created no small amount of controversy, catching the American music establishment off guard. Among the naysayers were the American composers Edward MacDowell and John Knowles Paine. MacDowell was particularly bitter: "We have here in America been offered a pattern for an American national music costume by the Bohemian Dvořák ... though what Negro melodies have to do with Americanism in art still remains a mystery." On the other hand, Dvořák's ideas provided just the imprimatur that was needed by composers like Arthur Farwell, who were especially interested in American Indian music. When Farwell established his own, composer-governed Wa Wan Press in 1902, his declared intention was to "launch a progressive movement for American music, including a definite acceptance of Dvořák's challenge to go after our own folk music."

Black musicians were ecstatic. The Freeman article recalled Dvořák's statements as "a triumph for the sons and daughters of slavery and a victory for Negro race achievements," referring to him as "Pan [father] Antonín Dvořák, our greatest friend from far across the sea." According to the late William Warfield, the distinguished bass-baritone and former president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, this bond with Dvořák "lives on in black music circles." 

The original interviews with "Eminent Musicians from Berlin and Vienna" (Joachim, Rubenstein, and an American composer, Arthur Bird) about Dvořák's "Negro Melody Idea" that had been summarized in the New York Herald were thoughtful, respectfully curious, and insightful:

Josef Joachim: "It may be a very good idea to try and merge the American Negro melodies into an ideal form, and that these melodies would then give the tint to the National American Music."

Anton Rubenstein: "If there is a great literature of these Negro melodies, Dr. Dvořák's idea is possible ... Ah, so they are going to allow Negros free musical education. That is very interesting ... they may develop a new melody ... It is refreshing of course ... in twenty five years or fifty years we shall perhaps see whether the Negros can develop their musical talent and found a new musical style."

Arthur Bird: "I wonder whether the Negro melodies ... simple, sad, musical, [would] lose from being instrumented." 

The comments from composer Anton Bruckner and conductor Hans Richter in Vienna, under the heading "A Cold Water Douche," were far less hospitable to Dvořák's thesis: 

"German musical literature," Bruckner declared, "contained no written text emanating from the Negro race, and however sweet the Negro melodies might be, they could never form the groundwork of the future music of America." 

Evidently Bruckner never heard of Beethoven's African-Polish friend, the composer and virtuoso violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower. Beethoven composed a violin sonata for Bridgetower titled "Il mulattica" which he later rededicated to Kreutzer, whose name it carries still. 

The final comments, which were not included in the New York Herald's summary article, were attributed to Hans Richter, conductor of the first performances of the "Ring" at Bayreuth. His post as "the celebrated leader of [Vienna's] Imperial Opera Orchestra and Philharmonic Concerts" would be taken over by Gustav Mahler three years later. It is the unnamed Viennese reporter's voice we hear as much as the maestro's: 

"[Richter] is very enthusiastic concerning America and believes greatly in its future music, but he could not realize that this could emanate from the Negro race, nor would he admit that persons playing by ear [more racist assumptions] could be taught music properly, or had ever given evidence of talent in this respect. He spoke of the gypsy race of Hungary, every man, woman and child of which plays by ear, but said that it was quite an exceptional thing for a gypsy to play from written music." 

It was a busy seven days at the two Heralds and could not have happened spontaneously. Thanks to the miracle of the paper's new commercial cable, "tongues ... were wagging" over "Doctor Dvořák's Bold Declaration" on both sides of the Atlantic. On Wednesday, in the middle of this stormy week, Dvořák completed the scoring of his "New World" Symphony, and in keeping with his normal practice he carefully signed and dated it: "Fine, Praised be to God! May 24, 1893, at nine in the morning." In an unusual gesture, Dvořák returned to the score later that day to add a euphoric note: "Family arrives at Southampton! (telegram 1:33)." One could view this "famous entry" as some quaint exuberance. Some scholars see it as both a revelation and a symbolic dedication: the blessing of his loved ones, vesting them with the New World energy and sense of future he wrote about only seven months earlier: "I haven't got enough words to describe it all." Dvořák's impressions of America were now captured for all time in his symphony, a symphony that "reflects the music of the Negro."