Making It There: Dvorak, the Rich Lady, and the Big Score
August 2, 2013 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Droning around New York's Cooper Union (a free-tuition school since 1859 - until this year) on OpenStreetMap, I discovered that it really ties the room together. Nearby are the offices of Village Voice news, Kristal's CBGB site, the Anthology Film Archives, Washington Square, Union Square and ... Antonin Dvorak?? Why's a Czech composer a site in Lower Manhattan? Lets do the James Burke ...

Enter stage left: JEANNETTE MEYER.
Born in 1850 in Delhi, NY (not far from the NYC feeling its oats where, 5 years later, rapscallion poet Walt Whitman would first publish his Leaves of Grass). Her father is Henry Meyer, an immigrant amateur violinist from Copenhagen. Having a look at Jeannette's picture will help explain much of her fascinating story, which we'll have just a glance at. Apparently fiddle-scratching paid decently in mid 19th-century NY; in her mid-teens Jeannette was sent to be educated at the Paris Conservatory. A school so très particulier that Hector Berlioz only qualified to be a librarian. There (in the era of Adolphe Sax), she discovered an "obsession with the democratization of music" that would lead her to fly "in the face of most of her peers".

Leap forward to 1885 (skipping much operatic drama), now the wife of grocery wholesaler Thurber in a city full of immigrants, socialite Jeannette founds the National Conservatory of Music of America. How about that name?? Let's call it NCMA. It opens in converted homes at 126-128 East 17th Street, two blocks from Union Square and a few blocks south of swank, private Gramercy Park. One of the people she hornswoggled into contributing: Andrew Carnegie. Yep. Have another look at that picture.

Anyway ... remember Dvorak? So now we discover why he ... a scruffy-looking Bohemian son of a butcher born just north of Prague in 1841, 'discovered' by Johannes Brahms ... already a household name in Europe for his Slavonic Dances (Op. 46 #8. SLYT.) ... transmigrated to NYC in 1892: NCMA hired Dvorak as its Director for a $15,000 (!!) salary. Let's call that $370,000 today ... no more cancelled Czech jokes, thank you.

In NYC Dvorak develops his already-existing interest in Native American music and African-American spirituals. From the beginning NMCA offers classes not only for aspiring pros but for amateur musicians, and (along the lines of Cooper Union) offers them tuition-free for the talented poor and the blind. At the insistence of both Dvorak and Thurber in 1893, it also invites Afro-American students. Young African American baritone, composer, double bass player Harry Burleigh becomes one of his assistants.

During his first year in America, Dvorak and Thurber view a performance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and see Annie Oakley. And he hangs out with Czech immigrants in Iowa. (Letter)

That's where Dvorak's head is at as he completes his "From the New World", aka Symphony No. 9. (1) Commissioned by the NY Philharmonic it premieres on December 16, 1893 in two year-old Carnegie Hall, 40 blocks north of the NCMA. Well-received in NY, it creates consternation in Boston. It's still a top-10 classical favorite. (4th movement. SLYT)

In 1895 Dvorak forever returns to Europe after leaving a comment. Thurber will live on for another half-century until the end of WW2. We'll note in passing that she almost hired Englebert Humperdinck to direct the NCMA in 1913 - and did hire Victor Herbert to teach there. Alas, the 1929 stock market crash scuttles the largesse keeping the NCMA bouyant. The school's records? ... disappeared. Never mind: the list of its students and their students speaks volumes.

As it turned out, for the most part, America found its voice in pop music, not classical. Over the protests of Lee De Forest, his radio child was dressed "in rags of ragtime, tatters of jive and boogie-woogie." Over the protests of Vaclev Havel, Dvorak's NYC home was demolished in 1991.

In the end, techology brought what patrimony could not. Democratization of music (Doc Wiley, SLYT)
(1) Video: Beyond the Score:Whose World? (1 hour)
posted by Twang (6 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
This is a great post, thanks! It's too bad that classical musicians in the U.S. didn't follow Dvorak's exhortations and open up their musical world at the start of the 20th century, imagine the amazing, uniquely American musical art that could have been.... (Not that we didn't have our populists and our experimentalists, but if those figures had been mainstream instead of fringe we could have forged a place in popular musical culture for concert music that is only now being made. And composers could have figured out how to work with and capitalize on music technologies rather than pretending that they didn't exist. And etc.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:10 AM on August 2, 2013

Wow that's a lot of Dvorak. Coincidentally, I am housesitting and they have a nice piano, so just yesterday I decided I would try and revive the piano instruction I started when I was about 10 years old: Mikrokosmos. They're all on YouTube, and I have my old books. I can just play along to the videos. Should be easy, I did this when I was a little kid.

Nope, the exercises are simple but deceptively difficult. I don't remember it being so difficult. Hmm.. come to think of it, I do remember it being this difficult, I think that's why I gave up the piano.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:33 AM on August 2, 2013

Guys relax, there's no August Best Post contest, so nobody has to feel bad they can't top this. Good shit!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:53 AM on August 2, 2013

Wonderful post. Thank you!
posted by mintcake! at 11:29 AM on August 2, 2013

America may have found its voice in pop, but his complaint of 120 years ago is still true today. Support of musicians and other artists is still shamefully underfunded.

(nice post!)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 1:58 PM on August 2, 2013

evolution of music... neither forgotten, nor lost. Always, you are with us.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 11:24 AM on August 3, 2013

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