Old Borax and the Spirituals

By Greg Sandow, with help from Antonín Dvořák and some of his friends

Dvořák—a lovable and very famous Czech composer—was invited to visit and teach in America. He arrived in 1892, stayed for three years, and wrote his “New World” Symphony, which of course got its nickname because, back then, Europeans still called America “the new world.” During his visit, Dvořák lived in New York, and loved it, but was embarrassed by all the attention he got:

On Sunday the 9th, there was a big Czech concert in my honor. There were 3000 people present, and there was no end to the cheering and clapping. There were speeches in Czech and English and I, poor creature, had to make a speech of thanks from the stage, holding a silver wreath in my hands. You can guess how embarrassed I felt! What the American papers write about me is simply terrible—they see in me, they say, the savior of music and I don’t know what else besides!

His friends in New York used to call him “Old Borax,” perhaps because “Dvořák”—as pronounced in the composer’s native Czech—sounds more raspy than the spelling would suggest in English. And as one of these friends remembered, there were things Dvořák looked for in New York, but had a lot of trouble finding:

What the Master missed in America were his two hobbies, his pigeons and locomotives. One day we went to Central Park where there is a small Zoological Garden and buildings with different kinds of birds. And then we came to a huge aviary with about two hundred pigeons. It was a real surprise for the Master and his pleasure at seeing the pigeons was great, even though none of them could compare with his.

With locomotives it was a more difficult matter. In New York at that time, there was only one railroad station, and they did not allow anybody on to the platform except the passengers and it was in vain that we begged the porter to let us look at the American locomotives. We traveled by elevated train to 155th Street, a good hour from the Master’s house, and there, on a bank, waited for the Chicago or Boston express to go by.

But then the Master found a new hobby in steamships. For one thing the harbor was much nearer and then, on the day of departure, the public was allowed on board, an opportunity which the Master made full use of. There was soon not a boat that we had not inspected from stem to stern.

Dvořák believed deeply in America, and also in American music. He especially believed that African-American and Native American songs could someday inspire a triumphant American style of classical composition. He learned about African-American songs from a remarkable African-American, Harry T. Burleigh, who studied at a New York music school where Dvořák taught, and visited Dvořák at home many times:

I sang our Negro songs for him very often, and before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the music of the old spirituals.

He was in his shirtsleeves, with all his children round him. He had bird cages all over the house with thrushes in them. He kept the cage doors open so the thrushes flew about freely and joined in the singing. I’d accompany myself at the piano. Dvořák especially liked “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,.” and “Go Down Moses.” He asked hundreds of questions about Negro life. When I sang “Go Down Moses,” he exclaimed, “Burleigh, that is as great as a Beethoven theme!”

When the “New World” Symphony was first performed—by the New York Philharmonic—it was a huge, grand, colossal success. Poor Old Borax! Now he had more embarrassing acclaim to endure. But he loved to talk about the American inspiration of his triumphant new piece:

It embodies my principles, to preserve, to translate into music, the spirit of a race as distinct in its national melodies or folk songs.

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And certainly that’s not hard to hear in the music. Listen to these melodies from the first movement.

The second movement [he went on to say] is a study or sketch for a longer work which will be based upon Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” The third movement of the symphony was suggested by the scene at the feast in “Hiawatha.”

But isn’t something missing from this description? What happened to Harry Burleigh and his slave songs and spirituals? Said Burleigh:

I have never publicly been credited with exerting any influence upon Dr. Dvořák, although it is tacitly believed that there isn’t much doubt about it. The great master literally saturated himself with Negro song before he wrote the “New World.”

Many people took this further, and said that Dvořák had used real Native American and African-American tunes in his symphony. That made Old Borax angry:

Forget that nonsense, that I used Indian and Negro melodies, because it is a lie! I tried only to compose in the spirit of those melodies, that’s it!

But that’s just the point! Dvořák composed in the spirit of the American music Harry Burleigh and others had taught him to love. And nowhere is Burleigh’s influence more clear than in the gorgeous, very simple melody of the second movement. “Hiawatha” might have been part of its inspiration, but it sounds so much like a spiritual that someone later wrote words for it, so it could be sung. Dvořák even scored this melody for the English horn, the only orchestral instrument that had the husky sound of Burleigh’s singing voice.

So the “New World” Symphony has a very special history. It embodies the love for America that Old Borax so deeply felt. And it’s the only classical masterwork that was inspired, at least in part, by an African-American.

Greg Sandow, the curator of this site, is a veteran critic who’s now more active as a composer and consultant. You can find out more at his website, www.gregsandow.com.