On the eve of the New York premiere of his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” in 1893, Anton Dvorak stated in an interview that he was “now satisfied that the future of music in this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”
Dvorak had been brought over to New York from Bohemia in 1892 by one Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, the wife of a wealthy New York grocer, to help establish a national conservatory of music of America. Its objective was to develop American composers who would follow the example of what Dvorak had done with the Slavonic folk materials of Bohemia and create music from indigenous American sources that would qualify as fine art worthy of being performed in the great concert halls along with the classics in the European canon.
What Dvorak did not point out, however, was the fact that for folk material to become a truly native fine art, it had to be extended, elaborated and refined through the employment of devices that were also indigenous. What he either left out or failed to emphasize was the indispensable dynamics of the vernacular imperative. Those “Negro melodies” he referred to were the product not only of native folk material as such but also of a native or homegrown process, the employment of certain musical devices that were also native, if only through frontier modification of imported procedures.
Nor did Dvorak provide any example of what an original school of American composition would sound like. Certainly his New World Symphony was not American music. It was European music about America. It was American raw material or subject matter developed in terms of European conventions of composition. Not that any American idiom would, should or even could be altogether different from European convention. It would be European-derived music significantly modified by conventions evolved in the Western Hemisphere.
Dvorak had heard Negro spirituals and other Negro melodies as well as the popular plantation-derived airs in the repertory of Stephen Foster, to be sure; and on a visit out to Spillville, Iowa, he was impressed by various Indian melodies and chants. Moreover, between 1892 and 1894 he could also have heard ragtime tunes and cakewalk instrumentals–and perhaps also some of the new music for the fox trot, the one step, etc., that was beginning to replace the waltz as the rage of popular music. Surely the composer of Slavonic Dances should not have missed anything so basic as that to a truly American music. Nor is it irrelevant to wonder what was or would have been his reaction to a musical element so uniquely American as syncopation.
In all events, he returned to Europe in 1894, and he died in 1904, four years before W.C. Handy’s codification of the blues put its basic structural devices in the public domain of the popular music that was to be extended, elaborated and refined into jazz. But even so, Dvorak was prophetic enough to have declared that “in the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or any purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.”