Dvorak, Larsen, and the Americas

Dvorak was born in 1841 in the modern day Czech Republic. His interest in American music was piqued when he traveled to the United States in 1892, soon falling in love with the melodies of African-American composer and singer Harry T. Burleigh. Seeking to capture “the spirit” of American music, Dvorak began composing “convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies.” He finished his Symphony From The New World in Spillville, Iowa, a colony of Czech immigrants who allayed the composer’s debilitating sense of homesickness.

The Largo movement of the symphony is notable for its similarity to the American spiritual. The piece sounded so patently American that it was often mistaken for a traditional folk song. Many claimed that Dvorak’s Largo ripped its melody from the negro spiritual Goin’ Home – some scholarship suggests that in fact the reverse is true.  Regardless of whose story you believe, the confusion underscores a collapse in the once distinct spheres of trans-Atlantic music, a collapse that would come to define twentieth-century popular music in both the Americas and Europe (consider the reciprocity between American Rock music and the British Invasion).

It is thus fitting that the symphony features prominently in the concluding chapters of Quicksand. Larsen writes that Helga’s sudden decision to return to America is inspired by a “wonderful” rendition of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” Indeed, it is the piece’s “wailing undertones of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”’ that ultimately compel Helga to return the United States(94). The inclusion at first seems uncanny – why would a Czech composer’s rendition of the American spiritual fill Helga with nostalgia for the states?  Upon closer examination, however, the inclusion points to the way Europe functions as a foil in Quicksand: it is only through the lens of Europe that Helga manages to see the promise of America and its culture.

-Max

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