Dvorak and the Spirit of Indian Music

In this 1893 New York Herald article, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak discusses his 9th symphony, From the New World. Dvorak says that “since he has been in this country, I have been deeply interested in the national music of the negroes and Indians,” later concluding that the two styles of music were nearly identical as a national genre. Because of his interest in the national American style of music, he studied Indian melodies that a friend gave to him, becoming inspired by the spirit of their being, later composing this symphony on the basis of that spirit.

However, the manuscript that was given to Dvorak wouldn’t have been enough for him to authentically understand Indian music. As we have encountered in Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life, Europeans at the end of the Civil War found that the culture of Indian music was worth preserving, though their transcribing methods were fairly limited. Because there are several forms in which Indian music can exist and because those forms can be dependent on their purpose in the moment of a ritual, transcribing what one hears in a single performance then fixes the identity of that music. In addition, most of the documented Indian music was from the perspective of non-Indians and the Indian music that Dvorak studied followed this trend.

With that in mind, it’s evident that Dvorak’s attempt at composing in the “spirit of Indian music” is completely removed from Indian culture. Even though he studied a “certain number of Indian melodies,” his encounter is secondhand, failing to understand the circumstances in which that music would have been performed. In addition, we don’t have records of what music he was looking at, so the credibility of that source dwindles further. Had he experienced an Indian ritual in person, his compositional approach would have likely been more legitimate and true to its source.

Article sources

  • [No known author], “Dvorak on His New Work,” New York Herald (New York City, NY), Dec. 15, 1893.
  • Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), 389.

1 thought on “Dvorak and the Spirit of Indian Music

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Angela! It might be interesting to look more deeply into what Native American music, exactly, Dvorak had access to when he composed his Symphony No. 9. You’re right that without the personal experience of American Indian ritual, he couldn’t ever hope to represent the music “authentically,” but from our own experiences looking at transcriptions and other representations, we also know there are “better” and “worse” sources for how Native American music sounded. Just something to keep thinking about – this could make a very interesting final paper topic.

    Thanks for your clear, persuasive writing, and for linking back to a class reading. Next time, consider incorporating some images (whether of Dvorak or your source or something else, it doesn’t matter too much) and/or an audio clip (so readers who aren’t in our class can hear what Dvorak did!).

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