Notes 60.1 (2003) 167-169
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New Worlds of Dvorák: Searching in America for the Composer's Inner Life. By Michael Beckerman. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. [xxiii, 272 p. 0-7546-0352-0. $29.95.] Illustrations, bibliography, index, compact disc.
The underlying theme of Michael Beckerman's book New Worlds of Dvorák: Searching in America for the Composer's Inner Life is the power of the extramusical to inform our perception of an artist's work. Beckerman examines in detail the years that Dvorák spent in America in an effort to arrive at some notion of the composer's private thoughts and feelings, arguing that this will enhance our appreciation or understanding of his music. Beckerman's tone is that of a thoughtful critic who is imaginative and insightful, yet at the same time skeptical. Some readers will be disappointed that questions asked are not always questions answered, but the heuristic value of the book is considerable and it is provocative writing that will engage the reader from the beginning. Beckerman has no qualms about raising questions with which he himself is still grappling.
The book introduces us to various key figures who had an influence on Dvorák during his soujourns in the New World: Jeannette Thurber, philanthropist, who lured the composer to America to teach at the music conservatory she founded and who hoped that Dvorák would point the way toward a new "American" compositional style; Henry Burleigh, African American conservatory student and composer who sang spirituals to Dvorák; James Creelman, intrepid "yellow journalist" who did much to call attention to the composer [End Page 167] during his stay; New York newspaper critics James Huneker, who introduced Dvorák to African American and Native American music, and Henry Krehbiel, who knew the composer most intimately and wrote analytical critiques of the "New World" Symphony for the New York Daily Tribune.
Beckerman deals with the question of why an anxiety-ridden, travel-fearing Dvorák would leave his home and family to make a journey to a land about which he knew very little. Besides the obvious attractions of money, fame, and admiration on a par with Haydn's triumphant reception in London, Dvorák also welcomed the opportunity to escape from some of the pressures that he felt at home and to travel to America and compose works in an "American" idiom, including an opera or cantata based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha." The reasons that the "Hiawatha" project (with which Dvorák was constantly occupied) was never ultimately realized is the subject of chapter 5. The author paints a complex picture of Dvorák as a sort of tone magician, manipulating listeners with carefully calibrated musical gestures that are calculated to achieve maximum effect. Beckerman also discusses Dvorák's shrewd self-marketing and the deft control that he exerted on critics and audiences in the reception of his works. These views challenge some traditional scholarship that presents the composer as something of a gifted primitive who wrote beautiful music that he somehow channeled from a higher source, or as a naïf who was innocent of journalistic spin and self-promotion.
The numerous audio selections are key to understanding the points that Beckerman makes; he could have included scores instead of a compact disc, but with the latter choice he is able to reach out to a broader audience. (The music examples in score are displayed at www.wwnorton.com/trade/Beckerman, accessed 21 May 2003.) The compact disc tracks include piano snippets played by the author and other recordings of Dvorák's works, as well as selected portions of pieces by figures as diverse as Beethoven, Chopin, Smetana, and Stephen Foster. There are also two fanciful realizations of sketches; one (track 45) by Czech musicologist Jarmil Burghauser, the other (track 26), without attribution, presumably by the author. The most fascinating of all the examples are the African American melodies and the symphony themes they may have inspired (tracks 28...