Saturday, May 22, 2021

English suites and others no. 44

Antonín Dvořák, leading Czech nationalist composer and devoutly dedicated to his homeland - he'd refused offers to move to Vienna, capital of the Austrian Empire within which the Czech lands then lay - spent three years in the 1890s living in the United States. Why was he here?

He'd been invited by a philanthropist who was founding a music school. The idea was that Dvořák would teach American composers to do for American nationalism in music what he had done himself for Czech music. How well that worked out, we'll see whenever this vaguely organized-by-country survey gets to the U.S. But Dvořák himself, though homesick enough that he eventually abruptly resigned and went back to Prague (lack of salary also played a part: there was a depression going on) found the U.S. an interesting place, not least because, after teaching in New York all year, he could spend a summer in a Czech-settled village in Iowa.

While in the U.S., Dvořák wrote a fair amount of what might best be called American tourist music, rather like Russian and French composers writing Spanish tourist music, incorporating what the composer himself heard as an "American" sound. Several of these pieces, like the Symphony from the New World and the "American" Quartet, have become among Dvořák's most popular works. Some listeners say they're indistinguishable from his Czech-flavored music, but I hear a distinct difference: brighter harmonies and emphatic cadences, a more plain-spoken and regular construction than the more relaxed and rhapsodic Czech style. Try comparing his Czech Suite, the previous work on this program, with his American Suite:

There's five movements: Andante con moto (0.00), Allegro (5.02), Moderato alla polacca (9.11), Andante (13.47), Allegro (17.25).

(Normally I try not to subject you to videos with the score, though I like them myself, but this is definitely the most crisp and incisive performance available online. It should be; it's conducted by Antal Dorati.)

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