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The Dvořák-America Romance, and the Mystery of Big Moon

October 4, 2010 by Reader's Connection

Dvorak in Love

East 38th Street’s Ellen Flexman did a post back in July about books related to music, and the music we should listen to while we read them; and she inspired me to read a couple of books about Czech composer Antonín Dvořák–specifically about the time he spent (1892-1895, with an interruption in 1894) in the United States.  

The composer and the country fell in love with each other. Of course the affair had its rough moments, but what affair doesn’t?

As it was, his ties did become the rage. After the premiere of the New World Symphony, New York blossomed with green cravats, as though it were St. Patrick’s Day. And there were homburgs a la Dvorak, even cufflinks a la Dvorak, pure fantasy on the part of some entrepreneur because–she remembered them well–his were the most ordinary square ones cut from deer horn. And the beard a la Dvorak offered by Italian barbers? All one had to do was stop looking after any beard and there it was.

Jeannette Thurber, who was founder of the American Conservatory of Music and lured Dvořák to America, is recalling his visit in Josef Škvorecký’s 1987 novel Dvorak in Love–which you shouldn’t read if your stories need to be linear, stait-laced affairs. Škvorecký (a Czech who migrated to Toronto in 1968–you remember the Soviet tanks that year) has written a book that moves back and forth in time and changes its point of view with every chapter.

As he puts it, he decided before writing the novel that “I should look at Dvořák through the eyes of several people, tell his story through the voices of both Czechs and Americans, men and women, intellectuals and simple people, blacks and whites.”

Dvořák in America, 1892-1895Thurber and her grocery-magnate husband who financed her endeavours; and Harry Burleigh, who sang for the composer, exposing him for the first time to African-American spirituals ; and Jim Huneker, a would-be musician who worked and drank with him and then turned against him as a critic; and Dvořák’s wife and daughter and sister-in-law all have their episodes. This is a dance that’s full of death and sorrow but is often quite funny.

 Škvorecký admits that he had “a secret thesis in the novel, namely, that Dvořák had some influence on the acceptance of jazz in America.”

His comments are taken from his essay, “How I wrote ‘Dvořák in Love'” which appears in Dvořák in America, 1892-1895, a collection edited by John C. Tibbetts. 



The Dvořák family, or those members of it who came to America, spent the summer of 1893 in Spillville, a Czech-populated town in northeastern Iowa. Essayist and memoirist Patricia Hampl, who wrote in A Romantic Education about growing up Czech in America and travelling in Czechoslovakia, visited the Iowa town with some friends and released a 1987 book of reflections called Spillville.


kickapooThese books approach Dvořák from different angles, and it’s interesting to see where they converge and where they completely disagree. The Dvořáks left Spillville in rather a hurry, and Škvorecký and Hampl have different solutions to the puzzle of this hasty departure.

“Toward the end of the summer,” Hampl tells us, “a small band of Kickapoo Indians came to Spillville to sell medicinal herbs.” They put on shows which Dvořák attended every night. “He even had the snake oil headache treatment, administered by Big Moon, the leader of the Kickapoos.”

Hampl subscribes to the theory that Dvořák ‘s daughter Otilka was seen walking with Big Moon, a romance was suspected, and Antonín & spouse hustled their family out of Iowa. Škvorecký rejects this theory and believes that Dvořák ‘s secretary, Spillville native Josef Kovařík–who had talked Dvořák into summering in his home town–was the one whose romancing of Otilka instigated the launch of the Dvořáks. Hampl has heard of this possibility, but gives credence to a tape recording of Frank Kapler, who was thirteen years old in Spillville when the Dvořáks were there.

Then the friend says, “Or some say she was in love with Kovařík.”
     Kapler, that boulder of a voice, comes on sure as a stone tossed in still water: “That may be. But she was with Big Moon. That I know.”

Decide for yourselves.

dvorak_thumb2As for the musical accompaniment, I’ve been using these books as an excuse to listen to all manner of Dvořák; but you can’t very well read them and not listen to Symphony No. 9: From the New World, which was inspired by his American stay. That title link will take you to the Rafael Kubelik/Berlin Philharmonic recording, but if you open our catalog and enter the search terms dvorak symphony new world you’ll find some other hits, among them some Great Courses lectures by Robert Greenberg. (The title in the catalog is Concert masterworks. Part 2 of 4, Nationalism and expressionism in the late nineteenth century.) Greenberg goes into great detail about how the different themes and different keys play off against each other–this is a serious musical discussion–but he’s funny about it, and about parts of the symphony he doesn’t like, and about some of Dvořák’s critics.

Růžena Maturová as the first RusalkaIn his chapter “Moon over Turkey River,” Škvorecký offers a wild (and totally made-up) scenario about the Iowan inspiration for Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, so opera buffs will want to hear that. (That’s a link to our DVD, but the library has CD’s as well.)

Dvořák composed a piano cycle entitled Humoresques, and the most famous of those pieces–which you’ve heard a dozen times, even if you thought you were listening to a Stephen Foster tune–is given two different geographical points of conception by Škvorecký and Hampl. I’m listening to a violin and piano recording, but in our catalog you’ll find a parlour grand piano recording, a recording on theremin (an electronic instrument), and a wood quintet recording, among others.

I wish you happy reading, happy listening, happy living in the New World.


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