Antonín Dvorák and Iowa’s Czech Tradition

September – October 1993

The year 1993 has been proclaimed as the “Year of Celebration of Czech and Slovak Heritage” in Iowa by Governor Terry Branstad, centering the commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of Antonín Dvorák’s summer in Spillville. This exhibition is offered as part of this celebration.

Czechs settled in Iowa as early as 1850, attracted by the availability of inexpensive farmland. Cedar Rapids and Spillville both became focal points for Czech immigration. Following the Civil War, the Czech population rose rapidly as pioneers wrote friends and relatives urging them to come to Iowa. During the 1860s and 1870s the state maintained an Office of Immigration in New York; the Commissioner made contacts with new immigrants, published descriptions of Iowa in foreign newspapers, and even sent agents to European ports to persuade people to locate in Iowa.

In Cedar Rapids today, the Czech Village incorporates a wealth of information on the ethnic history of the area. The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library houses the largest collection of authentic national costumes outside the Czech Republic, and preserves old world traditions with various displays and activities.

Antonín Dvorák was born in Nelahozeves, just north of Prague, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He entered the Prague Organ School at the age of 16; following graduation, he played viola in the orchestra of the National Theater. In 1873 his Hymnus for chorus and orchestra attracted wide notice. He was awarded the Austrian State Prize for his Symphony in E-flat in 1875. He then devoted himself to composition with increasing success, becoming the most celebrated of Czech national composers. Liszt, Brahms, and Hans von Bülow were among those who promoted the performance and publication of Dvorák’s works.

In 1884 Dvorák was to conduct his Stabat Mater and other works in London; this was the first of several trips to England, with commissions to write large choral works for the Birmingham and Leeds festivals and a new symphony for the Philharmonic Society. In June 1891 Dvorák was invited by Mrs. Jeannette Thurber to head the National Conservatory of Music in New York. His arrival in New York was timed to coincide with the celebrations commemorating the fourth centenary of the discovery of the United States. His duties at the Conservatory included teaching composition and instrumentation, and conducting the choir and orchestra.

In 1893, Dvorák and his family spent the summer holiday in Spillville, Iowa at the suggestion of Jan Josef Kovarik, the son of Jan Kovarik, a teacher, organist, and prominent member of the Spillville community. Jan Josef has been a student at the Prague Conservatory; he accompanied Dvorák to the United States, acting as secretary and interpreter.

Among the works composed during Dvorák’s time in Spillville were the String Quartet in F and the String Quartet in E-flat. Dvorák traveled to Chicago for the World Exposition, and on “Czech Day” (August 12) conducted performances of the Symphony No. 8, three Slavonic Dances from the op. 72 set, and the overture Domov muj (My Home).

Apart from a brief trip home during the summer of 1894, Dvorák remained in the United States until 1895, at which time he returned to Prague and resumed his position at the Conservatory. He became artistic director in 1901, and continued in this post until his death.

One of the many nationalist composers active during the late 19th century, Dvorák made perhaps the fullest reconciliation of a national idiom with the symphonic tradition. He absorbed folk influences, then found ways to incorporate them in orchestral, choral, chamber and operatic music. His nationalism involved not direct quotes; he absorbed the musical idiom which was then reflected in his music. Dvorák is considered a major influence in the development of an “American” music, especially in terms of recognition of African-American and Native American music. Yet through all this, he was essentially a family man who bred pigeons, welcomed a game of darda (a card game), and had a keen interest in trains.

This exhibition was prepared by Grace Fitzgerald, Rod Sharp, and Christine Bellomy, assisted by Joel Spector.