Antonin Dvorak’s Relationship with Johannes Brahms

Every composer has a beginning and time where they are relatively unknown. This was the case for Antonin Dvorak, who ended up being both a European and American influencer in music. Up until his thirties, Dvorak, who was born and raised in a small Czech town, was relatively unknown in musical circles. In 1877, however, Johannes Brahms recommended one of Dvorak’s works to his own publisher.1
The piece was one from the grants Dvorak had applied for, which were focused on helping poorer composers get their start as composers. Remarkably, Antonin Dvorak clearly benefited indirectly from the grants he received.

Below is Dvorak’s response to hearing about Brahms’ recommendation.2
The letter is very thankful throughout, as one would think Dvorak might be at this time in his life. This letter, in fact, is the beginning of a relationship between two great composers, as Brahms continued to help Dvorak find his voice and eventually become the Dvorak that is well known in Europe and the US, and likely other parts of the world. This letter is remarkable to have been kept considering its historical significance. If not for this relationship, Dvorak’s music might not have impacted American music to the extent that it did. 

Commentary on this letter contextualizes it well, but that can also be a lazy excuse to not read this letter critically and follow a primary source reading guide. While the pages surrounding this letter talk much about Dvorak’s and Brahms’ relationship, they don’t mention American music, which Dvorak later came to know and influence. Many books and articles mention that Dvorak’s New World Symphony transformed American music, but a certain New York Times article debunks this theory.3
While Dvorak’s symphony surely had its influence, this article especially discredits the idea that Dvorak was the first to say that American music would have its unique characteristic in African American melodies. While there are many other details on composers who pioneered this view before Dvorak, a singular message can be taken away by the reader: the way music developed was not due to one person, but rather through a complicated journey. It just so happens that Brahms’ recommendation of Dvorak to his publisher was one piece of a large puzzle of the slow transformation of American music.

1. Beverage, David R., “antonin Dvorak”, Dvorak American Heritage Association,,to%20texts%20of%20Moravian%20folk

2.  Geiringer, Karl. “On Brahms and His Circle.” Harmonie Park Press, 2006, p. 351. 

3 Shadle, Douglas W., “Did Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony Transform American Music?” 14 December 2018. The New York Times

Dvorak’s Correspondence and What They Say About Him

The book Dvorak and His World by Michael Beckerman includes a chapter completely dedicated to correspondence received by Dvorak during his time in America.1 These letters are supposedly not published anywhere else and have never been seen before this book. There are a wide range of letters from pleasant greetings to desperate pleas, all of which demonstrate the kind of impact Dvorak had in the American community and the world as a whole.

Letter to Dvorak regarding Requiem premiere.2

These first few letters were received by Dvorak just before and after his Requiem was first performed in Boston. The second letter is from someone giving thanks to Dvorak on behalf of the Boston government. He states that the opportunity for Bostonians to hear a premiere Dvorak’s work directed by Dvorak himself and with the ability to meet Dvorak is not something easily forgotten. He concludes his letter by stating that it is difficult to find words to describe the beauty of his work and that  “Boston is fortunate in receiving its first impression of the great work at the hand of its great composer.”3 He continues in hoping that Dvorak’s “stay in America may be as pleasant to yourself as it will surely be profitable to the country, and that Boston may have many more occasions of renewing an acquaintance so delightfully begun.”4 This letter demonstrates how much of a impact Dvorak had on the places he traveled. The language in this letter allows us to understand that the people of Boston greatly valued Dvorak’s visit and premiere, and it had a vast impact on Boston and its people.

Letters to Dvorak requesting his help.4

The second section of this chapter includes letters to Dvorak from parts of the world Dvorak was not near at the time. It is unclear whether or not Dvorak ever responded, but these letters show that Dvorak had a great impact on other parts of the world and that many people were languishing for his attention. The first letter comes from a remote location in California close to the Mexican boarder “remote and isolated that perhaps the place has never been brought to [Dvorak’s] notice.”5 They have a prosperous music society intensely studying the works of Dvorak and often come across numerous problems with obtaining copies of his scores due to their location. That being said, they have “great enthusiasm and reverence for the Master who is doing so much for the development of music in America” and they would just like to ask “Dr. Dvorak to send [them] a few words of encouragement and advice.”6 This cute interaction is one way of showing how impactful Dvorak was even on the smallest and most remote communities all so desperately wanting to learn and study Dvorak’s music.


Beckerman, Michael, ed. Dvorák and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Accessed November 1, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central.


1Michael Beckerman, ed. Dvorák and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Accessed November 1, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central.






Sacred turned Spiritual

Henry Thacker (H.T) Burleigh, was a black American, classical composer who was known for his compositions and arrangements of spirituals. H.T. Burleigh was also an accomplished professional singer. “Harry Thacker Burleigh played a significant role in the development of American art song, having composed over two hundred works in the genre. He was the first African-American composer acclaimed for his concert songs as well as for his adaptations of African-American spirituals.”1

“Burleigh was surrounded by music from a young age,” his mother was his first music teacher and throughout his childhood he was a dedicated church performer. As he grew older, sacred music was no longer his niche. Burleigh was quite the accomplished singer, he attended the National Conservatory in New York, eventually on scholarship. One important event/events that should be noted is that while Burleigh was at the National Conservatory, Antonín Dvořák became the director of the program. Throughout Burleigh’s time there, the two became quite close. Burleigh would often sing spirituals to Dvořák which he used as inspiration for some of his compositions and even used “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as a theme in the first movement of his symphony “From the New World.”2

Burleigh wrote a few works based on plantation melodies he learned throughout his childhood. Among these few, “Deep River,” is one of the most famous and recognized spiritual songs. “It was soon normal for recitals to end with a group of spirituals. Musicians such as Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson made these songs a part of their repertoires.” Although we musicians know the voice type to be baritone, when Burleigh was publishing his music, most of the works were for “low voice.” 

H.T. Burleigh’s contributions to music, most importantly African American spirituals, some instrumental, but mainly vocal music played a role in breaking down the racial barriers that existed and brought African American music to the forefront

1“H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949).” n.d. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Is American music really American?

After playing in the St. Olaf Orchestra’s concert last spring which essentially had all works from Antonin Dvorak; including Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and “American Suite.” It became clear to me that what we consider “American” music, isn’t actually American. We learned from Joseph Horowitz that Dvorak would take bits in pieces from melodies he heard while traveling around America. It should be noted that most “American” music contains melodies, tunes, and isms from many other different cultures. 

In Dvorak’s Prophecy, Scholar Joseph Horowitz sheds light on the fact that Dvorak was in search of “homegrown” music. According to Dvorak “homegrown meant music created by Black and Indigenous people.” The term “homegrown” can definitely be picked apart to pieces when attempting to determine if Indigenous, Black, or American music is considered to be homegrown or not.

When Dvorak composed these pieces, he had the idea that everything he heard and picked up was essentially American. Although we can acknowledge that most of the tunes he incorporated in his music were from Indigenous people. 

“Dvorak was stirred by the sad fate of the Indian and the pathos of the slave. His empathy found expression in his Symphony From the New World- … It begins with a sorrow song and ends with an Indian dirge. Its most famous tune, later reconstituted as the synthetic spiritual “Goin’ Home,” memorializes the tragic servitude of Black Americans.”

On a similar but a little different note, I think that our education system has failed us in the past. Growing up and hearing music on the radio, on TV, in stores, we’ve always thought that what we were hearing was American music. In actuality, most of these pop songs we hear have stemmed from African American people. We have been surprisingly ignorant when it comes to the origins of the music we listen to and I think that ought to change. We can complete this circle by coming back to Dvorak. Dvorak composed the “American Suite,” in an attempt to capture American music. Before I had any prior knowledge of this piece, I simply thought: Dvorak was in America at the time therefore, the music was American. Oh, how I was wrong, and I imagine I’m not the only one who had thought this way. I hope we can learn and acknowledge our ignorances and move forward with open minds.

Dvorak in Spillville, Iowa where he spent a summer in search of “American” music.


Music: Dr. dvorak’s new symphony. 1893. The Critic: a Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts (1886-1898). Dec 23, (accessed September 20, 2023).

Horowitz, Joseph. Dvořák’s prophecy and the vexed fate of Black Classical Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2022.

Toll, Martha Anne. “Review | He Saw a ‘noble’ Future for Black and Indigenous Composers. He Was Wrong.” The Washington Post, December 10, 2021.

Dvorak and Brahms: the relationship that helped launch Dvorak into international spotlight

Antonin Dvorak is perhaps one of the most well known composers to ever live. There are many stories about Dvorak’s time in America, but another topic worth noting is his rise to fame that would eventually lead to his time in America. Although his works themselves proved his merit as a composer, Dvorak was boosted into the spotlight with the help of Johannes Brahms. Although they never lived in the same region, their relationship was very important to both of them as composers and as friends. 

In many biographies, the relationship between Dvorak and Brahms has been minimized not only by perennial placement of the two composers in separate chapters, but also by prejudices held by the chauvinistic views of the German people. Peter Petersen, a German musicologist, highlights the prejudices held by Germans in a critique of Dvorak’s history in Germany. 

Petersen also helped to establish a more objective comparison between the two composers. The first list below shows some of the similarities between the two composers:

The next list shows some of the differences between the two composers.

Dvorak first became known to Brahms after competing and winning three awards for composition competitions. However, their relationship wouldn’t begin until after Eduard Hanslick, a music critic, encouraged Dvorak to write letters to Brahms. In an attempt to flatter Brahms, Dvorak’s first letters exaggerated his familiarity and love for the great composer’s music. Dvorak’s first letter seems to try to establish a mentorship that would let him learn from Brahms.

Brahms took an interest in Dvorak right away and connected him to Simrock, Brahms’ personal publisher. Although Brahms mentioned his dislike for letter writing, Dvorak was very persistent in building a relationship with Brahms. On one of Brahms’ concert tours, Dvorak sent multiple letters to the composer, an act that most would see as rude. 


Through their shared composition profession, Dvorak and Brahms were able to overcome national prejudices and build a professional and personal relationship. Brahms even offered Dvorak his whole estate after his death. Dvorak’s relationship with Brahms not only helped him grow as a composer, but also helped to launch his works into the international spotlight. After his works were exposed to other countries, Dvorak would soon gain popularity, earning an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Cambridge. Moreover, Dvorak would eventually accept a position as director at the National Conservatory of Music in New York which kickstarted his time in the US where he would compose his New World Symphony. 



Dvorák and His World, edited by Michael Beckerman, Princeton University Press, 1993. ProQuest Ebook Central,


Harry T. Burleigh: accomplished composer, talented baritone… and Dvořák’s muse?

One of the most beloved African-American composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Harry T. Burleigh. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, he learned to sing spirituals from his mother and sang in various church and community events throughout his childhood. In his teenage years, he became known as a fantastic classical singer, and got to work at and see many famous people perform, such as Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño. Then, a few years after high school in 1892, Burleigh began to attend the National Conservatory of Music in New York on scholarship for voice (1).

But, by the title of this blog post, how does any of this relate to Czech person and well-known composer Antonín Dvořák?

Well, Dvořák happened to immigrate the United States in 1892 also to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music! He both taught classes and conducted the conservatory orchestra, which Burleigh also happened to become the librarian and copyist for. As a result of this, Dvořák and Burleigh worked together frequently, which eventually turned into a friendship. A particularly cute story from their friendship comes from a letter Dvořák wrote to his family back home that his son “[would sit] on Burleigh’s lap during the orchestra’s rehearsals and [play] the tympani” (2).

However, the relationship between the two bettered their compositions as well. Dvořák would often overhear Burleigh singing spirituals to himself while working or in the halls, and, not knowing much about spirituals, would talk to him about them and learn many of the songs from him. Dvořák then encouraged Burleigh to begin composing and arranging these spirituals (1). This would kickstart a prolific composing career for Burleigh, who incorporated spirituals into many of his original art songs, arrangements, and other compositions, and amassed a portfolio of over 200 works. Here is a review of his works from the Afro-American Cullings section of the Cleveland Gazette (3):

Dvořák also found ample inspiration in the African-American folk music he learned from Burleigh and gained a huge amount of respect for it. In fact, he was so displeased that white Americans did not care for African-American music that wrote several news articles in the New York Herald, in which he argued that the soul of American music lies in Black music, which the Herald’s white readers found difficult to swallow, to say the least. Here are a few words from an article he wrote in 1893, with even a picture of Burleigh (4):

Dvořák then composed his New World Symphony (here’s a link to its very famous Largo movement) based off several spirituals, the pentatonic and blues scale – all learned from Burleigh – and Indigenous music, and it gained massive acclaim and spreading rapidly throughout the country (3). Black communities across the country absolutely adored the work, and grew to become very fond of and proud of both Dvořák and Burleigh, as can be seen in this from the Cleveland Gazette (5):Thankfully, and radically for the time, Dvořák gave much credit to Burleigh for the conception of many of the ideas for his New World Symphony (2). One can debate the ethicality of Dvořák’s quotation of Black and Indigenous music within his own music, but at the very minimum, he supported and credited those who inspired him.


(1) “H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949)”. 2022. The Library Of Congress.

(2) “African American Influences”. 2022. DAHA.

(3) “Afro-American Cullings.” Cleveland Gazette, October 30, 1915: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers.

(4) Dvořák, Antonin. 1893. “Antonin Dvořák On Negro Melodies”. New York Herald, May 28th, 1893.

(5) “[America; Dr. Antonin Dvorak; Mr. Harry T. Burleigh; Erie; Samuel P. Warren].” Cleveland Gazette, September 23, 1893: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Roundup: A Selection of Black Musical Artists of the Early 1890s

In an article published in the Cleveland Gazette on November 4th, 1893, Walter B. Hayson provides an enthusiastic endorsement of the “company of remarkable songstresses” and other talented musicians among the Black population.1 He claims that “just as the white race has its Patti, its Nordica, its Albani”, so are there similarly talented Black artists, and sets out to provide examples of this talent.

Hayson laments the “coveting of empty titles” and the trend of “purposely [aping] the conventionalities in singing of a known artist”, describing such behavior as “groveling and distracting” and praising those singers who do not fall into this trap. He provides a detailed critique of the talents of several Black male and female singers, applauding both good technical performance and “naturalness in stage presence” equally while criticizing poor execution and musical selections. He emphasizes that many of these performers are yet young while praising their talents, creating a hopeful tone for the future of Black musicianship.

However, this hope betrays bias. Hayson was a celebrated educator, music critic, and activist who was later a founding member of the American Negro Academy.2 This highly elite institution sought to bring together Black leaders in various fields with the aim of “the promotion of literature, science, and art; the culture of intellectual taste; the fostering of higher education; the publication of scholarly work; the defense of the Negro against vicious assaults”.3 This reflected the concept of the “Talented Tenth” which was espoused by W.E.B. DuBois, which held that the most highly educated and skilled Black people would be able to uplift all Black people through their achievements.4 Hayson later publicly responded to Antonín Dvořák’s support of Black music, provoking a wave of backlash against the idea of Black music being originally Black.5 This in turn prompted the work of Krehbiel and Jackson that we have analyzed.6

This ideology is present in Hayson’s article, which seeks not only to give a summary and review of the most talented Black musicians of the time, but also to claim ownership of these artists by the Black population at large. He repeatedly refers to “our young singers” in “our midst”, establishing a sense that these artists represent all Black people in some way.1 He also says of H.T. Burleigh that “the best wishes of us all accompany him in his new work”, deepening this impression and asserting that the “best wishes” of all Black people are aligned in wanting these young artists to find success. Burleigh in fact found greater musical success after the World’s Fair in which he was performing, and eventually became an activist in his own right.5 In optimistically profiling the promising young Black talent of the time, Hayson reveals the hope that their success could be used as a tool to improve the situation of Black people in America. While this hope is innocent in itself, it prescribes a specific model for success for Black people as individuals and as a group: becoming part of the Talented Tenth meant subscribing to Western ideas of correctness or success in music and other spheres, and their success meant that these values applied in turn to all Black people.


1 “The ‘Queen Of Song.’ A Fair Criticism of Mrs. Flora Batson Bergen and Others of.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), November 4, 1893: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.

2 Moon, Fletcher F. “American Negro Academy (est. 1897).” In Freedom Facts and Firsts: 400 Years of the African American Civil Rights Experience, by Jessica Carney Smith, and Linda T. Wynn. Visible Ink Press, 2009.

3 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “American Negro Academy.” Encyclopedia Britannica, August 28, 2014.

4 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Talented Tenth.” Encyclopedia Britannica, May 23, 2016.

5 Snyder, Jean E. Essay. In Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance, 102–11. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2021.

6 Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music (1914), 11-28; George Pullen Jackson, White and Negro Spirituals (1943) 265-268 and 278-289.

American Music: Brought to You by the Bohemians

I found a book in Halvorson Music library called Dvorak in America: 1892-1895, which is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the New World Symphony or other works of Dvorak’s that were influenced by the pursuit of creating “American” music.

An image of Dvorak over a Native American rowing a boat.  Tibbetts, John C. Dvořák In America: 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.

I was surprised to find what I assume to be a promotional image depicting Dvorak overlooking a Native American rowing a boat down a river of music notes in this book.  In class we focused on McDowell’s attempts to tap into the music of Native Americans to find sources of inspiration for his American music and Dvorak’s attempts to do the same through spirituals.  While Dvorak did search for inspiration for the New World Symphony in African American spirituals, “accompanying the premiere, Dvorak penned an essay in the New York Herald… now suggesting as well Native American melodies for that same purpose…. Dvorak’s suggestion of Native American music were largely overshadowed at the time by his assertion of African-American musics. But not long after Dvorak’s pronouncement, a so-called “Indianist” movement had emerged, placing Native American subjects at the fore of US musical nationalism.” [1]

Transcriptions of three Iroquois songs given to Dvorak by Henry Krehbiel.  Tibbetts, John C. Dvořák In America: 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.

I found it incredibly interesting to see Dvorak’s interactions with many of the notable names from our course.  There’s a section on how Henry Krehbiel (questionably) transcribed some Iroquois melodies for Dvorak to take inspiration from in his New World Symphony and was clearly disappointed that he didn’t use them.  When reviewing the work as a whole and finding an insufficient amount of ‘Indian spirit’, he decided that the work was not American enough and that “Dr. Dvorak can no more divest himself of his nationality than the leopard change his spots.” [2]

Since our class discussions are ordered based on musical genre rather than chronological order, it was really interesting and informative to see the interactions between all of the people and ideas involved and how they overlap.  For those who want to learn more about the New World Symphony, Dvorak’s varying inspirations for music making and his interactions with other notable musicians and critics, Dvorak in America: 1892-1895 is a great resource and an interesting read.


  1. Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Vancouver, BC, November 4, 2016.

Works Cited:

Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Vancouver, BC, November 4, 2016.

Tibbetts, John C. Dvořák In America: 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.

Bias and Sexism in the Search for the Great American Symphony

When I was working on the readings for our upcoming class, I was perplexed by the choices made in order to procure the definition of ‘American’ music.  It just sounded to me like no one knew what they wanted, criticizing composers for sounding too European while accepting music from foreign enemies into the American cannon over those from marginalized groups of Americans.  Fauser’s and Shadel’s articles do an especially good job in complicating the relationship between American music and European opinion, as the idea that American music must be differentiated in some way came from the Europeans and was put into practice first by Dvorak in his New World Symphony.  This  was so well received that it established the bohemian composer as an authority on African American spirituals, and many adaptations were made from his symphony to be marketed as authentic spirituals.

Goin’ Home: Negro Spiritual from the largo of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, Lyrics by Fisher

Down De Road: From the Largo of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, lyrics by Kagles

A Song of Home: From the Largo of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, Lyrics by Lorenz

I was interested in the portion of Shadel’s article on Amy Beach’s response to Dvorak’s symphony and how she created her own interpretation.  Having been born and raised in America, one would think that Beach would have a leg up on Dvorak in composing American symphonies.  Her Gaelic Symphony, being the first symphony composed by an American woman, fits much of the criteria proposed of the idealized ‘great American symphony’. Meanwhile, Beach’s symphony was not taken seriously by critics due to her gender.  Compared to Dvorak and Chadwick, Beach’s music was described by critics as “delicate”, “beautiful” and “tender”, while “other early reviewers… did not comment at any length on the expression of a national identity given the works clear dialogue with Dvorak” [1].  It was striking that many of the quotes, whether positive or negative, couldn’t help but mention Beach’s gender in relation to the music, while “the most negative critics displayed heightened anxiety over the emergence of a truly valid American symphonic voice capable of speaking to international audiences” [2].  This is what people had been hoping for in the ‘great American symphony’; however, for some, the fact that this voice was coming from a woman was the sole thing rendering the attempt invalid.

Beach Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32 ‘Gaelic’

Follow these links to listen for yourself:

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”, I. Allegro con fuoco

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”, I. Adagio- Allegro molto

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major, I. Allegro sostenuto

Chadwick purportedly told Beach after her symphony’s debut, “I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine new work by any one of us, and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you will or not—one of the boys” [3].

American music has a long history of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, etc.  When we think about American music, we must also stop to think about who’s experiences we are validating and invalidating.  Who are we letting participate and why?  We cannot tout the idea of an American “melting pot” of musical culture if different groups are not all respected equally.


  1. Shadle, Douglas W. Orchestrating the Nation : the Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  2. ibid
  3. Block, Adrienne Fried E. Douglas Bomberger. “Beach [née Cheney], Amy Marcy.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

Works Cited:

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”

Block, Adrienne Fried E. Douglas Bomberger. “Beach [née Cheney], Amy Marcy.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”

Dvorak, Antonin and Fisher, William Arms. Goin’ home Negro spiritual from the largo of the New World Symphony, op. 95 Adelaide: Cawthornes Ltd, 1922. Web. 16 Oct. 2019 <>

Dvorak, Anton and Klages, Raymond, “Down De Road : From The Largo Of The New World Symphony” (1925). Vocal Popular Sheet Music Collection. Score 4824.

Dvorak, Antonin, Lorenz, E.J and Gray, Geofrey. A song of home from the Largo of New world symphony : two-part song Melbourne: Allan & Co, 1940. Web. 16 Oct. 2019 <>

Fauser, Annegret. Sounds of War : Music in the United States During World War II New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Shadle, Douglas W. Orchestrating the Nation : the Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

“Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors.” Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors,


MacDowell vs. Ballard: A Comparison of American Indian Identity in Classical Music

As we discovered in our readings last week, Edward MacDowell’s “Indian” Suite for Orchestra represents a point in American music history where composers felt obligated to present the Indian identity in their compositions.  This is often referred to as the “Indianist” movement inspired by Antonin Dvorak in his use of Native American and African-American thematic elements used in his prolific Symphony No. 9 “New World.” 1 However, we look back on it today as a example in a long line of misunderstood interpretations of the American Indian identity by primarily white people at the top of a hierarchy, whether it be at the helm of a government entity or a religious, social, or cultural sphere.  To drive the point home, here is an excerpt from an article written by Henry Finck as a tribute to Edward MacDowell’s legacy.  This particular excerpt was written in response to hearing the “Indian” Suite performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra:

“The Indian suite played at this concert was interesting from many points of view, which I can touch on only very briefly.  It is based on genuine American Indian Melodies.  The introduction has almost a Wagner touch thematically, but it is note for note Indian, and there is also a curious Northern ring in some of the theme… we might say that the MacDowell suite is civilized Indian music.” 2

By presenting the notion that MacDowell refined American Indian songs to become more “civilized,” Finck asserts that American Indian music is something uncivilized or perhaps “savage.”  This perception of Native American culture by Americans was commonly accepted and was a longstanding notion in the use of programs sponsored by the United States government, with one of the many examples being the use of Indian Boarding Schools as a way of brainwashing American Indian children into becoming more “American.”

While the “Indianist” movement did portray a negative connotation of Native American music, it would later inspire other composers to counteract with their own take on how American Indian identity should be portrayed in classical music.  Take for example, “the father of Native American Composition,” Louis W. Ballard:


As a Quapaw Cherokee Indian, Ballard wanted to blend the styles of Western classical music with “the music and dance traditions of his culture.”  He studied with several different composers in the 1940s and 50s, such as Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Carlos Surinach, Felix Labunski, and Bela Rosza, meaning that he was very dedicated to the craft of composition in the style of Western classical music.  As a composer, he wrote several pieces of varying instrumentation from solo works like the one presented here by Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli  (Louis Ballard: Four American Indian Piano Preludes, Emanuele Arciuli, piano,) to woodwind quintet pieces with Native American flute, ballets, symphonies, and even a chamber orchestra piece titled Incident at Wounded Knee, which was commissioned and performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1974.  Alongside his compositions, he also served as the National Curriculum Specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1968 to 1979 and wrote American Indian Music for the Classroom which served as a curriculum “for teachers who wanted to incorporate American Indian music in classroom instruction.” 3

With his contributions to American music, Louis Ballard and several other Native American composers provided their unique voice from the precedents set by composers like MacDowell and Dvorak to write “Indianist” works.  Even Ballard himself accredited Dvorak’s prediction as an inspiration to compose his music, saying that “‘…[he] was in good company when [he] took up [his] pen to express the sufferings of [his] people, their regeneration and hopes for a better future life…'”

1. Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians” 1
2. Finck, “An American Composer” 448
3. Berkowitz, “Finding a Place” 4-16

Berkowitz, Adam E. “Finding a Place for the Cacega Ayuwipi within the Structure of American Indian Music and Dance Traditions.” Florida Atlantic University, May 2015. 4-16
Blim, Dan. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” AMS, 2016. 1
Finck, Henry T. “AN AMERICAN COMPOSER: EDWARD A. MACDOWELL.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), 01, 1897. 448,

Harry Burleigh–A Nice Post for Once

We have been tackling some difficult ethical issues in this class regarding how we should feel and respond to the shameful reality of minstrelsy and its related veins. One conclusion we have come to is to acknowledge the past, recognize (white) America’s shortcomings, and point ourselves and others in the direction of something better. In my research for this post, I feel I have found that something better.

Sheet music for “Steal Away” arr. by H.T. Burleigh.
Complete sheet music here.

I came across the spiritual, “Steal Away,”1 the name of which I recognized as a song Viking Chorus sang during my freshman year. I found that the spiritual was arranged by Harry T. Burleigh, and reading about him was a little shining star in this (at times) depressing class. A rendition of the spiritual can be found on Youtube, among several others.

Harry Thacker Burleigh (b. 1866) is recognized as the first and among the most influential African American composers in post-Civil War America. He studied at the New York National Conservatory of Music where he became friends with Antonín Dvorák, who was the school’s director. They spent ample time together, Burleigh sharing with Dvorák the black spirituals and plantation songs that he had heard from his grandfather. Dvorák encouraged Burleigh to save these songs, to arrange them as his work.2 Thankfully, he did. “Steal Away” is one of the hundreds of pieces he arranged and composed. His most successful song is likely his arrangement of “Deep River” (1917), a song many people today recognize.3

Photograph of Harry T. Burleigh by Carl Van Vechten

In the booklet of “Negro Spirituals” from which I found “Steal Away,” one of the first pages is a single page note from Burleigh on spirituals. Similar to the descriptions of spirituals Eileen Southern provides in Antebellum Rural Life,4 Burleigh outlines them as “spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor, and had their origin chiefly in camp meetings, revivals and other religious exercises”. He goes on to condemn the portrayals of blacks and their music in minstrel shows, declaring that the attempted humorous mimicry of “the manner of the Negro in singing them” is a “serious misconception of their meaning and value”.5

It is my belief that, with the knowledge of the shortcomings of American culture in our hearts, we should look to and celebrate those who do not fall into the questionable traditions we have encountered. I think Harry T. Burleigh is a splendid example. Thus, I would like to end this post with the ending words of Burleigh’s note in the booklet. He speaks of that value mentioned above, the true value of spirituals.

Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man–every man–will be free.


Dvořák in Spillville

While not American in nationality, Antonín Dvořák represented much of what American music was about. Specifically, he saw the value of early African-American and Native American music as rich sources to establish an American national identity. Dvořák spent time in America from 1892 to 1895 as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. During this time, many Americans wrote letters to Dvořák.

Of interest to me are two correspondences to Dvořák from Jan Josef Kovařík, the father of Dvořák’s secretary. Kovařík lived in Spillville, Iowa, where Dvořák spent some time in the summer of 1893. Both letters mention not his music, but instead offer a look into how Dvořák was treated by people of the towns he visited. The first letter was sent in May of 1893 before Dvořák’s arrival. In it, Dvořák is treated very cordially, and welcome with open arms.

“I would find you a cook; furnishings such as beds, pillows and blankets and bedsheets, all that we would have ready for you.”

Clearly, Kovařík saw value in having Dvořák visit Spillville, and wanted to ensure a pleasant stay. This one instance shows that Dvořák was not viewed as an imposter or someone swooping down to bring up a “lesser” culture. He was merely a visitor to a small town, and his host treated him with kindness and a certain level of familiarity.

The second letter was sent in December of 1894, well over a year after Dvořák had left Spillville. Kovařík seems to lament the fact the no one writes to him. He opens the letter by stating that “In vain I have been waiting to hear from you.” Despite not receiving responses from Dvořák, Kovařík continues in a friendly tone. He discusses the town’s going-ons as in a normal conversation.

“Your old friends Kumpal, Bily, Krnecek, Grandfather are all still alive—every day they trek to the little church to worship and then to gossip a little on the way back.”

Again, neither of these letters mention Dvořák’s music. However I think they still provide a valuable insight into how Dvořák was viewed as a person both before and after meeting someone. It seems that he left a positive mark on Spillville, and was gracious with his time while he was there. That speaks well to the music he might have gathered from the community there, as well as to his intentions in other areas of America.


Klaus Döge. “Dvořák, Antonín.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 6, 2017,

“Letters from Dvořák’s American Period: A Selection of Unpublished Correspondence Received by Dvořák in the United States.” In Dvorak and His World, edited by Beckerman Michael, 192-210. Princeton University Press, 1993. 

Dvořák and Krehbiel

In DvorÃjk and His World,  Michael Beckerman collections of various correspondents between Dvořák and critics and fan. I found one letter that stood out to me in particular was from Henry Edward Krehbiel. He was writing with praise of Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

Second from the left: H.E. Krehbiel

We know from Simon Plum’s blog post titled Henry Edward Krehbiel published on October 10th, 2017. We know from Simon’s post that Krehbiel was a musicologist and author known for his work on bringing black folk music into the spotlight to be recognized. He was born on March 10, 1854 in Ann Arbor and passed March 20, 1923.

Correspondance from H.E. Krehbiel to A. Dvorak. From Berkerman’s collection.

In this letter, composed by Krehbiel on December 12th 1893 in New York invited Dvorak to attend a lecture he was giving at the “Women’s University Club” on “Folk Songs in America”. Krehbiel wanted to talk with Dvořák about his New World Symphony to write an article on it for the New York Tribune.

After doing some additional research, I was able to find a newspaper article published 5 days later after the correspondence. While there is no author listed, it fits the style and time frame of Krehbiel. It is a short article titled Dr. Dvorak’s Symphony located under the Music header of the Tribune.

Work Cited

Bain News Service, Publisher. Paderewski & wife and H.E. Krehbiel. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, link.

Beckerman Michael, DvorÃjk and His World. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 1993.

Plum Simon, Henry Edward Krehbiel. Music 345: Race, Identity and Representation in American Music. Pages.StOlaf. link.