Imagine you’re Antonín Dvořák in the early 1890s, on a boat from Europe bound for New York. Your duties when you arrive will be to take over as director of the relatively new National Conservatory of Music, which has a policy of admitting women and people of color in addition to young white men. You plan to immerse yourself in the culture of the United States with the hope of writing a new kind of symphony that is borne from an original American character and not simply derivative of the orchestral standards being imported from Europe.
Today, the simplest thing to say about America is that America is a lot of things: sprawling, diverse, and enterprising; constructive and destructive at once. Its future feels unclear, and its past is defined by sets of nuances and contradictions far too difficult to catalog. America is tribes of indigenous societies, enslaved people stolen from faraway lands, offspring of immigrants seeking wealth or fleeing conflict or escaping destitution. It’s home to boundless farmland and New York brownstones; to free refills and spin classes; to Amish churches and Airbnb. Especially since the Industrial Revolution, America has come to characterize the shift from a sectarian world to an inextricably connected one, finally coming close to its “melting pot” promise where culture, origin, and creed are blended and increasingly nebulous.
So of course Dvořák had a problem, even 130 years ago. What on earth does America sound like? What is “American,” anyway? It’s a question without an answer, or at best a very limited one. And the result of Dvořák’s mission to create this new kind of symphony can be sliced countless ways, derided or celebrated (or a million things in between) from a host of perspectives as diverse as America itself.
Here in contemporary America, as we grapple with issues of authenticity, appropriation, and heterogeneity, there’s perhaps no better time to reevaluate Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, “From the New World.” Dvořák was famously intrigued by African-American music during his years in America, and the “New World” symphony was a supposition that the “future music” of the country must begin with the culture of this marginalized and disenfranchised population. But can – or should – a Czech composer say anything about the musical identity of an entire foreign nation? Can – or should – a white European artist incorporate ideas into his work that originate from a culture he is not part of? Are can and should the best questions to ask, or is it better to discuss what happens when?
A DSO Classical Series program this April presents Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony as dozens of concerts around the world do each orchestra season. But this program also aims to open conversations like the ones sketched out above, chiefly by apposing the venerable Dvořák with two new works: the world premiere of James Lee III’s Amer’ican, which is a direct response to Dvořák’s “New World” that investigates and plays with its meaning; and Gabriel Kahane’s 2018 emergency shelter intake form, a contemporary musical consideration of American homelessness. The hope is that the convergence of these three works will provoke questions about American identity and how people exist within the country’s character – geographic, cultural, economic, or otherwise.
Dvořák’s American Ideal
When Dvořák tackled questions like those during his time in America, he got a lot of answers. Today, debate about Dvořák’s intentions and the reception his “New World” Symphony received is varied and heated.
For years, the standard story was that Dvořák, an outsider, came to discover something about American culture that most Americans couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see themselves: that African-American music is the true voice of the country. This revelation came from Dvořák’s interactions with the young black conservatory student Harry T. Burleigh, who sang spirituals to the fascinated composer. And when the symphony premiered and Dvořák proclaimed its success, he was forced to defend his (at the time) progressive thesis from an unconvinced populace.
Most of the basic facts in this story are true, but there’s quite a bit of untold nuance. While the “New World” Symphony may be among the most significant affirmations of African-American culture in the otherwise European world of the concert hall, it was not the first; composer George Whiting argued for the “high culture” validity of Creole music in the mid- 1800s, and conductor Franz Xavier Arens toured Europe with a program of American music (much of it inspired by African-American idioms) that became a hot topic throughout the continent – before Dvořák even left for New York. While Dvořák wrote newspaper articles explaining his musical outlook on America, he also said “America will have to reflect the influence of the great German composers, just as all countries do,” and once wrote “leave out that nonsense about my using Indian and American motifs – it is a lie!”
But the most glaring issues with the standard “New World” mythology are those that were drummed up in the 1890s and haven’t been changed or reconsidered since. Consider Dvořák’s observation that “the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical,” and that “the music of the two races bore a remarkable similarity to the music of Scotland” – an outlandish takeaway by today’s standards, but not contextualized enough to dispel the myth that the piece makes several “authentic” references to African-American and Native American music and culture. Or look no further than the common title of the piece: “New World,” a dated, Eurocentric phrase that creates a land of otherness on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean. While few would argue it’s fair to judge an 1893 work by 2020 standards, we’ve learned a lot in those 130 years. We ought to use those lessons to better understand Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 rather than take it – and its dated legends – at face value.
A New World for the “New World”
Enter Amer’ican, a new work by composer James Lee III commissioned by the DSO. Amer’ican considers more than a century of performing, critiquing, and trying to understand Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony – and it offers an alternative perspective on the venerable work. For one thing, Amer’ican is unapologetically centered on the Native American experience. Lee draws inspiration from 18th century paintings of Pre-Colombian America (created, like Dvořák’s music, from an outsider’s point of view) and investigates what they do and don’t say about Native American history and culture.
To give Native Americans a voice, Lee turns to definitions of the name of the Michigan Anishinaabeg tribe and creates music to fit: “There is a definition of the name, which is ‘Beings Made Out of Nothing,’ ‘People created by divine breath,’ and ‘People from whence lowered,’” he writes. “The orchestral texture continues to become denser and grow in energy until “the good humans” (another definition) are created to full form and stature.” In a sense, Amer’ican shares its own “Being Made Out of Nothing:” Lee creates original sounds that personify Native American experiences without relying on stereotypes or co-opting musical tropes. The work respects the “other’s” perspective and reflects Lee’s own.
DVOŘÁK & LEE: NEW WORLDS