“Historians generally consign the arts to the margins. Ironically, when you visit Florence you may hear about the power of the Medici or the mendacity of the Savonarola, but what captivates you is the creativity of da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli. It is artists who both encapsulate their own time and create its furthest flights of imagination.”
~ Robert Winter
A butcher’s son, an instinctive democrat, the composer AntoninDvořák was self-made. No other European musician of comparable eminence so dedicated himself to finding “America.” Dvořák’s quest was both concentrated and varied. And Dvořák’s embrace was warm: he loved folk music, popular dance and song. He thrilled to Manhattan’s polyglot population and in Iowa equally savored what WillaCather called “the sadness of all flat lands.”
Jeannette Thurber, a visionary educator, had lured Dvořák from Bohemia to direct her National Conservator of Music. And she handed him a mandate: to help New World composers create a concert idiom Americans would recognize as their own. Dvořák -- the proud member of a Hapsburg minority subject to prejudice and discrimination -- was galvanized by African-Americans and Native Americas. “It is to the poor that I turn for musical greatness,” he told a New York reporter. “The poor work hard; they study seriously.” And Dvořák predicted -- his most famous, most controversial, most prophetic utterance -- that the future music of the US would be based upon its “Negro melodies.” In New York – then, as now, a city of immigrants -- Dvořák’s counsel was taken to heart. But in Brahmin Boston, Dvořák’s view that “black and “red” Americans were representative was considered naïve at best; PhilipHale, Boston’s leading music critic, denounced him as a “negrophile.”
There was a time when introducing young Americans to “great music” meant venerating a pantheon of dead and distant Europeans. This is no longer done -- but nothing has taken its place. The story of Dvořák’s American sojourn, a vital and timely alternative, furnishes the subject matter for the Pittsburgh Symphony’s NEH Summer Institute “Dvořák and America: In Search of the New World.”
The institute will take place Monday through Friday, , for three weeks (July 12 to 30, 2010). The participants will be 25 middle and high school teachers. The instructors are nationally known scholars and educators. The schedule includes field trips and concerts, and culminating curricular projects. The curriculum ranges far afield from music to deal with such subjects as Buffalo Bill, immigration, the slave trade, The Song of Hiawatha, and Yellow Journalism. The core topic is the quest for American identity at the turn of the twentieth century. Applications are due by March 2.
The core materials for this institute are a young readers book by the Institute’s Director, JosephHorowitz, and an interactive DVD authored by RobertWinter, who takes part as an instructor. Field tests of these materials are shown that for youngsters new to symphonic music, Dvořák is a fascinating and heroic figure. They eagerly identify with his search for a New World voice.