Dvořák and the American Connection

By Adam Gingery on November 17, 2016
Antonín Dvořák

As a prelude to the Modigliani Quartet's performance of Dvořák’s "American" quartet, guest blogger Adam Gingery of Backstage Podcast considers the composer's musical and cultural influence on the U.S.

Dvořák came to the U.S. a simple man.

He loved music, he loved his family, and he loved pigeons. He also loved his Bohemian homeland, from his quaint childhood home in the shadow of Prince Lobkowitz’s castle to the humble Slavic folk songs he included in some of his most famous work.

He made some strong claims when he arrived on North American soil, and as do many other visionaries, he offended people. After all, the status quo rarely means much in the broad scope of history.

When I look back to Dvořák’s statements on American music, though, I try to remind myself that he was just a simple composer and family man who loved pigeons.

Yes, he made some sweeping—and perhaps patronizing—claims about American classical music. And yes, he upset some people.

But that simple composer said some jarring things that needed to be said, and he challenged the prejudiced thinking of a generation of well-situated American composers.

And he did it all without the slightest bit of malice. You could say that this simple, bird-loving composer walked into an American hornets’ nest.

Dvorak with pigeons

Just a simple composer who loved pigeons

Dvořák Attempting to Predict the Future of American Music

“I am now satisfied,” Dvořák quoted to journalist James Creelman, “That the future music in this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

That statement sounds innocuous (and obvious) to those of us who grew up in the 20th and 21st centuries, but in 1893, such a claim was about as innocuous as the impending Spanish-American War.

Dvořák continued, “These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American.”

And then he dropped the hammer: “These are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”

Spillville, IA

View of Spillville, Iowa, where Dvořák wrote his "American" quartet

First of all, Dvořák’s statement regarding the “real foundation of any serious and original school of composition” implies that any American classical music heritage that doesn’t rely upon the so-called “negro melodies” is not real or serious. Obviously, American composers who weren’t using African American music took exception to that statement.

Secondly, by using the phrase “your composers must turn to [African American spirituals],” Dvořák was, in a way, acting like a house guest telling his host how to cook dinner. It just wasn’t tactful.

One can imagine how Dvořák’s comments made American composers feel—yes, there were actual American composers alive and working in the 1890s, and history has often overlooked them in favor of Dvořák. I’ll write more on the American composers’ response to Dvořák a bit later.

Dvořák should probably be exonerated of any wrongdoing, though. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, he was an honest person without malice. His cousin once wrote, “I never heard him speak vulgarly, flippantly, or indelicately. He was through and through of noble character, of high morals and his conduct was without reproach.”

Secondly, Dvořák did not understand America’s embarrassing state of racial relations. This was that hornets' nest I alluded to earlier. America was segregated, prejudiced, and still horrifically racist (even in the northern states).

Lastly, Dvořák’s benefactor brought him to the United States to help establish an American School of composition (again, that seems like a slap in the face to the American composers of the time). That benefactor, Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, had opened the National Conservatory of Music in America, and she wanted a real international headliner of a composer. She offered him $15,000—roughly $355,000 in today’s money—as a yearly salary, in addition to four months of vacation.

Jeannette Thurber

Jeannette Thurber

Dvořák, however, was afraid to leave his native Bohemia; his wife ultimately made the decision for him.

Mrs. Thurber was so adamant about Dvořák not only because he was one of the world’s preeminent composers, but because he had successfully established a recognizable sound for Czech music. Thurber assumed Dvořák could help America find a voice as well.

Thus Dvořák inherited the absurd responsibility of inspiring an American voice in classical music. It was “mercenary nationalism,” if you will. Maybe “drive-by nationalism” would be better.

Response from American Composers

One could argue that America didn’t need Dvořák to help develop a unique compositional voice.

Within the realm of classical art music alone, the United States had enjoyed the gifts of William Henry Fry, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, George Chadwick, and Amy Beach.

By the time Dvořák arrived in the United States, John Philip Sousa was an international figure, and Theodore Thomas was nearing the end of his life (Theodore Thomas wasn’t a composer, but he was the first famous orchestra conductor in the US).

While we don’t have time to investigate each American musician’s importance, you can probably imagine that some of the aforementioned composers were upset by Dvořák’s statements. He was indirectly saying that their efforts to create a national voice in music weren’t good enough.

In 1893, the Boston Herald printed an article response from American composers Amy Beach, Benjamin Lang, George Chadwick, and John Knowles Paine. Paine’s words carried the most emotion.

“If Dr. Dvořák has been correctly reported,” Paine wrote, “He greatly overestimates the influence that national melodies and folk-songs have exercised on the higher forms of musical art.”

John Knowles Paine

John Knowles Paine

Right off the bat, Paine attacks both Dvořák’s judgement and the value of “national melodies and folk-songs.” He also assumes that classical music is a “higher form of musical art”—that, in of itself, is a baseless and narcissistic claim. He continues:

Dr. Dvořák is probably unacquainted with what has already been accomplished in the higher forms of music by composers in America.

Paine struck a chord here—Dvořák did seem to entirely overlook the important work already accomplished by American composers.

His next claim hits a racial nerve, though:

“In my estimation, it is a preposterous idea to say that in the future, American music will rest upon such an alien foundation as the melodies of a yet largely undeveloped race,” Paine wrote.

That statement reveals a real problem at the root of his response—a deep racial divide in the U.S.

The Civil War had ended, but racism had not. He referred to African Americans as an “undeveloped race” whose melodies would create an “alien foundation” for music. At that time in American history, African Americans were no more alien than he was. Furthermore, if the race was in fact underdeveloped, it was because American society held them in developmental limbo.

Paine’s final statement closes the book on his argument, in my opinion:

“But, as our civilization is a fusion of various European nationalities, so American music more than any other should be all-embracing and universal.”

Paine countered Dvořák’s assertion that “negro melodies” were the future of American music by saying that American music should be universal, not based on one race’s music. It sounds good on the surface.

But Paine’s last statement directly contradicts that—he writes that “our civilization is a fusion of various European nationalities,” when hundreds of thousands of African descendants had been born on U.S. soil at that point. Those African Americans were creating uniquely North American music.

Before I read John Knowles Paine’s response to Dvořák, I erred on the side of the American composers. I thought that Dvořák was invading our national creative space at the behest of a wealthy benefactor, and that we could politely ignore his advice.

After reading Paine’s letter, though, I realized that without Dvořák’s influence, aspiring African American classical musicians in the late 19th century would not have had much of a future. Dvořák incorrectly predicted the future of American classical music, yet his mark was indelible.

One example of that indelible influence was Harry T. Burleigh.

Harry T. Burleigh and His Influence on Dvořák

Burleigh was accepted into Jeannette Thurber’s National Conservatory after the founder made the then-controversial decision to admit African Americans. Here is the first sentence of the Herald’s announcement:

“The National Conservatory of Music of America proposes to enlarge its sphere of usefulness by adding to its departments a branch for the instruction in music of colored pupils of talent, largely with the view of forming colored professors of merit.”

While it is heartbreaking that such an announcement even had to be made in the late 1800s, Thurber’s decision helped Harry T. Burleigh immensely.

Harry T. Burleigh

Harry T. Burleigh

As the story goes, Burleigh swept hallways in the conservatory after hours to earn some extra cash. He would often sing spirituals while he worked.

Dr. Dvořák heard him singing in the hallway one day. The rest of the story speaks for itself.

From that moment on, Dvořák would ask Harry T. Burleigh to play and sing African American spirituals for him before the composer sat down to work on the New World Symphony.

Burleigh later wrote in his article, “The Negro and His Song”:

“While I was never a student of Dvořák, not being far enough advanced at that time to be in his classes, I was constantly associated with him during the two years that he taught in the National Conservatory in New York. I sang our Negro songs for him very often and, before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the spirit of the old Spirituals.”

Burleigh claims that the use of the flat seventh in the New World Symphony points to spiritual influence, as does the syncopation in the introduction. He also draws our attention to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which may have worked its way into a flute solo before the end of the first movement.

Burleigh went on to have a successful career as a composer and arranger. His arrangement of “Deep River” became the first spiritual to enter the mainstream vocal repertoire.

Additional Influences in the New World Symphony and “American” Quartet

The second movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony has another seemingly obvious reference to African American spirituals. The English Horn solo—perhaps the most famous in the repertoire—sounds “for all the world like a folk song,” James Keller wrote for the San Francisco Symphony.

Side note: listeners often assume Dvořák wrote the famous 2nd movement theme based on a popular song called “Goin’ Home.” In fact, “Goin’ Home” was written long after Dvořák created the New World Symphony. One of his students wanted to write a “pseudo-spiritual” based on the 2nd movement’s theme.

So far in the New World Symphony, Dvořák has referenced spirituals with syncopation, flat sevenths, an allusion to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and a 2nd movement theme that sounds heavily influenced by spirituals. The 3rd movement of his famous Symphony No. 9 has no such references to spirituals—it draws Native American influence based on Longfellow’s  “The Song of Hiawatha,” an epic poem.

Dvořák’s third movement is a dance movement, and Dvořák wrote that it drew influence from the dance depictions in Longfellow’s masterpiece.

Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12, the “American” quartet, draws from a different set of influences entirely. He wrote the quartet while vacationing in Iowa—it took him about two weeks. “Thank God! I am content. It was fast,” he wrote afterwards.

No obvious African American or Native American influences exist in the quartet, although scholars have tried to point to the first section’s pentatonicism as a reference to Native music. Dvořák had relied on the pentatonic scale before in his Slavic music, though.

By his own admission, Dvořák’s greatest influence in the “American” quartet may have been the wide open spaces and grain fields of Iowa. That and a small creature called the scarlet tanager, a bird that often annoyed Dvořák as he tried composing in that region of the country.

Scarlet tanager

The "American" quartet's avian influence

You’ll notice the scarlet tanager’s presence in a recurring first violin motif in the third movement.

All things considered, Dvořák’s North American music was entirely original. He didn’t quote melodies or try to transcribe folk songs like Bartók and Kodály.

His compositions sounded like a product of their time—late romanticism—with the difference being that he went out of his way to “saturate” himself with African American and Native American tunes before he composed (to borrow a word from Harry Burleigh).


In closing, Dvořák’s influence on American composition may be just as cultural as it is musical.

He arrived in the U.S. stating that the folk tunes written on our soil (spirituals and “Indian” songs) were the future of American music, but he left our continent after making a dent in American racism.

I used to push back at the idea that a European composer helped us shape our own national sound—I still do—but without Dvořák and Mrs. Thurber, young African American classical composers in the late 19th century may not have had a voice.

That alone was reason enough to bring the talented, pigeon-loving composer to our soil.

Adam GingeryAdam Gingery is the co-founder of Backstage Podcast, a classical music podcast telling little-known stories behind famous people and musical works. He lives with his wife in the city of Philadelphia.


  1. Backstage Podcast Episode 6 - “Czech Please, Dvořák in America.”
  2. Dvořák in America, ed. John C. Tibbetts
  3. Dvořák: Letters and Remembrances, by Otakar Sourek
  4. Music in the USA, ed. Judith Tick