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SPILLVILLE, IOWA, in the state’s northeast corner, has never had a population exceeding 415. In the 2010 census, there were 367 people in 168 households. And, back in the summer of 1893, there were around 350—including the world-famous composer, Antonín Dvořák and his family.
There’s a good tale about how Dvořák got to Spillville, why this Czech composer came to America in the first place and, in fact, what brought about his return to his native Bohemia.
As described in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1995, Dvořák’s music is “the fullest recreation of a national idiom with that of the symphonic tradition, absorbing folk influences and finding effective ways of using them.” What’s more, Dvořák extended his search for inspiration well beyond Bohemia.
Dvořák was an impoverished music teacher in Prague when he caught the attention of Johannes Brahms. From 1874, Brahms encouraged the younger composer’s career. Dvořák was 33 at the time and relatively unknown beyond Prague.
As Dvořák’s reputation grew, so did his travels to other European cities where he absorbed more folk idioms. In 1892 he extended this travel to the United States, because of an invitation to serve as Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City.
The conservatory was founded by Jeanette Meyers Thurber, a major patroness of classical music in the U.S. The conservatory was unusual for its time in accepting women and black students. Wrote Dvořák about his experience, “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
His appointment was an enviable one, paying $15,000 annually, around $382,000 in today’s dollars. In return, Dvořák taught and conducted three hours a day, six days a week. He also got a four-month vacation each summer. Quite a gig, while the good times lasted.
In early 1893, Dvořák received a commission to write a symphony for the New York Philharmonic. The result was his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” a piece richly influenced by Native American lore. Later Dvořák wrote, “I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music.”
Prior to coming to the U.S. and in need of a secretary, Dvořák had hired Josef Jan Kovařik, a Czech-American who was studying violin in Prague. Kovařik came from a Czech-speaking community in Iowa, Spillville (a misrendering of its intended Spielville). Thus, it came as no surprise that the Dvořáks and Kovařik spent the summer of 1893 there.
Spillville provided the composer with opportunity to experience the American prairie while surrounded by Bohemian expats. Residing there, Dvořák composed his String Quartet in F, known as the “American,” as well as other chamber works.
The Panic of 1893 may have had little impact on tiny Spillville, but this sharp financial downturn was one of the worst in U.S. history. The National Conservatory of Music of America’s funding was particularly devastated, and the musical terms diminuendo and intermezzo were applied to Dvořák’s stipend. In 1894, his salary was cut to $8000 and payments became intermittent.
The Director gave his notice in early 1895. On April 27, 1895, he and his family returned to Bohemia, never to return to the U.S. Dvořák died in Prague, at age 62, on May 1, 1904.
His “American” String Quartet in F, String Quintet in E-flat and Sonatina for Violin and Piano, all composed in Spillville, and his Symphony “From the New World” firmly established Dvořák’s ties with the U.S. The book Dvořák in Love, by Josef Škvorecký, recounts Dvořák’s time as Director of the National Conservancy of Music of America. And, when mankind first visited the Moon on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, Neil Armstrong took along a recording of “From the New World.”
It’s quite a distance from Spillville, Iowa, to the lunar surface, but Dvořák’s artistry made the trip just fine. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016