Dvořák's grave at Vyšehrad
in Prague, where many of
the greatest Czech cultural
figures are buried
Antonín Dvořák is one of the most sympathetic modern musical figures: a man of lower middle-class origins who attained the height of fame yet never lost his connection with the common people, a Czech nationalist who proudly refused lucrative offers to compose operas to German texts, yet never succumbed to chauvinism. He is also one of the most underappreciated modern composers. Often relegated to second-class status and treated as part of an ethnic sideshow to the Germanic main event, he was in fact in the eyes of many contemporaries second in importance only to Brahms. Indeed, he achieved the rare distinction of having won the respect and eventual friendship of Brahms, who was by no means easy to please.
Dvořák, who came to the United States and served as Director of the National Conservatory of Music, caused an international controversy when he proclaimed in The New York Herald in 1893 that the future of American music lay in its African-American traditions:
I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here I was impressed with this idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. They are the songs of America and your composers must turn to them. All of the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people. Beethoven's most charming scherzo is based upon what might now be considered a skillfully handled negro melody. I myself have gone to the simple, half-forgotten tunes of the Bohemian peasants for hints in my most serious work. Only in this way can a musician express the true sentiment of the people. He gets into touch with the common humanity of the country. 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, gracious 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 find a themetic [sic] source here.