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.

More Information Online

Here are some links to web sites where you can look up composers and their works, buy recordings, and learn more about classical music:

The American Symphony Orchestra League offer continuous information on the orchestra field at their home web site: www.symphony.org. Read about orchestras around the country who are creating and presenting new ideas at the League’s new innovations forum.

For a wonderful introduction to American music, visit the web site for the American Mavericks public radio series, which features the San Francisco Symphony. The site includes biographies of composers, music downloads, and interviews and features on contemporary music.

Andante.com offers classical music news, reviews, and commentary. For a monthly fee, subscribers can download performances and access reference sources.

The online store ArkivMusic.com has a very complete catalogue of classical recordings. So does Amazon.com.

For kids who are learning to play instruments, FromTheTop.com offers a great resource, and access to public radio’s From The Top programs.

Many orchestras have wonderful web sites for smaller kids. They can play musical games at playmusic for starters, and visit its music links page to connect to more great music sites just for them.

The Learning Zone of the Naxos Records web site has an introduction to classical music, biographies of composers, a glossary of musical terms, and an excellent guide to live-concert listening. You can also stream loads of classical pieces, so this is a great place to visit if you want to listen to a work a couple of times before you hear it in concert.

And if you like the very newest “classical” music, don’t miss NewMusicBox, a monthly web ‘zine about living composers and their works.

New Music Audiences

The Music of Our Time
There are a number of organizations and resources available for creators, performers, and presenters of music written today.

Composer Residencies
A brief summary of the benefits and factors in planning and implementing composer residencies.

Promoting and Funding Commissions
The Ford Made in America project has made such in impact on orchestras across all fifty states with its first featuring composer Joan Tower. Find out how you can make the most effective experience in your orchestra. Visit Ford Made in America for more information on the project’s first round. Read about the upcoming second round with composer Joseph Schwanter here!

Before your next concert

How can I learn more about classical music?

Most orchestras give you several ways to learn more. You can read program notes online in advance of a concert, or in your seat before the concert begins. Many concerts are preceded by free lectures or discussions, and these can be entertaining and enlightening. Sometimes the conductor or soloist even talks about the music during the concert.

But you might not need to “know” more to have a great time at your next concert. Most people who attend concerts frequently find that it’s like any other passionate pursuit: The more you do it, the more you enjoy it. Most of the classical works you hear repay frequent listening: The more often you hear a piece, the more wonderful layers you hear in it. If you enjoyed your first concert, plan to come again!

Check the orchestra’s web site for future concerts that are specifically designed to help you hear the many layers in the music. And if your concert hall has a gift shop, pay a visit during intermission; you may find books and recordings that will help you enjoy your next concert even more.

Here are some links to web sites where you can look up composers and their works, buy recordings, and learn more about classical music:

For a wonderful introduction to American music, visit the web site for the American Mavericks public radio series, which features the San Francisco Symphony. The site includes biographies of composers, music downloads, and interviews and features on contemporary music.

Andante.com offers classical music news, reviews, and commentary. For a monthly fee, subscribers can download performances and access reference sources.

The online store ArkivMusic.com has a very complete catalogue of classical recordings. So does Amazon.com.

For kids who are learning to play instruments, FromTheTop.com offers a great resource, and access to public radio’s From The Top programs.

Many orchestras have wonderful web sites for smaller kids. They can play musical games at playmusic for starters, and visit its music links page to connect to more great music sites just for them.

The Learning Zone of the Naxos Records web site has an introduction to classical music, biographies of composers, a glossary of musical terms, and an excellent guide to live-concert listening. You can also stream loads of classical pieces, so this is a great place to visit if you want to listen to a work a couple of times before you hear it in concert.

And if you like the very newest “classical” music, don’t miss NewMusicBox, a monthly web ‘zine about living composers and their works.

About your first concert

I’ve never been to an orchestra concert before. What should I expect?

Expect to enjoy yourself! This if the time to let go of any preconceptions you may have about classical music or the concert experience. If you feel a litle nervous, that’s OK. Some things about the concert may seem strange because they’re new to you, but if you just focus on the music, you’ll have a great time.

Open yourself up to the music. Let it trigger your emotions—maybe even your memories. Feel the rhythms; follow the tunes. Watch the musicians and the conductor, and see how they interact with each other. Notice how the music ebbs and flows—surging and powerful at some times, delicate and ephemeral at others, and everything in between.

What if I don’t know anything about classical music? Do I need to study beforehand?

There’s no need to study. The music will speak for itself. Just come and enjoy!

Over time, many frequent concertgoers do find their enjoyment is deeper if they prepare for a concert. This can be simple, like reading the program notes beforehand; or it can be more involved, like listening to recordings of the music to be performed in the days before they attend a concert.

You know yourself best, so if research interests you, go ahead and follow your curiousity. But if studying isn’t your thing, there’s no need to be concerned about it. Just listen with an open mind.

Will I recognize any of the music?

You might. Classical music is all around us: in commercials, movie soundtracks, television themes, cartoons, retail shops, and even some elevators! Popular music often quotes classical melodies, too. While you’re listening in the concert to a piece you think you’ve never heard before, a tune you’ve heard a hundred times may jump out at you.

Whether or not you’ve heard the music before the concert, as you listen, you’ll notice that each classical piece uses its own group of several tunes over and over, in different ways. You’ll start to “recognize” these melodies as a work progresses. Listen for the ways a melody is repeated: Is it exactly the same as the first time, or with a different character? Is it played by the same instruments, or different ones? Does it start the same as before, but go off in a different direction? Or start differently and surprise you by developing into the tune you recognize from earlier in the piece?

What should I wear?

There is no dress code! Anything that makes you feel comfortable is fine. Most people will be wearing business clothes or slightly dressy casual clothes, but you’ll see everything from khakis to cocktail dresses. Some people enjoy dressing up and making a special night of it, and you can, too. Still, evening gowns and tuxedos are pretty rare unless you’ve bought tickets for a fancy gala—and if you have, you’ll know!

If you do decide to dress up, though, go easy on the cologne, which can distract others near you and even prompt them to sneeze (which may distract you)!

Should I arrive early?

Absolutely! Plan to arrive 20 minutes before concert time, so you can find your seat, turn off your cell phone, take a look at your surroundings, absorb the atmosphere, and have time to glance through the program book, too. You won’t be alone. Most concertgoers make a point of coming early to read the program notes, or just watch the orchestra warm up.

Rushing to your seat at the last minute doesn’t really give you enough time to get settled, so you may not fully enjoy the first piece on the program. And there’s another good reason to come early: Most concerts start on time. If you’re late, you may end up listening from the lobby! If that happens, the usher will allow you inside during a suitable pause in the program, so your arrival won’t disturb other concertgoers.

How long will the concert be?

It varies, but most orchestra concerts are about 90 minutes to two hours long, with an intermission at the halfway point. Very often there will be several pieces on the concert; but sometimes there is one single work played straight through. It’s a good idea to take a look at the program before the concert to get an idea of what to expect.

When should I clap?

This is the number-one scary question! No one wants to clap in the “wrong” place. But it’s simpler than you may think, and quite logical on the whole.

At the beginning of the concert, the concertmaster will come onstage. The audience claps as a welcome, and as a sign of appreciation to all the musicians.

After the orchestra tunes, the conductor (and possibly a soloist) will come onstage. Everyone claps to welcome them, too. This is also a good moment to make sure your program is open, so you can see the names of the pieces that will be played and their order.

Then everything settles down and the music begins. Just listen and enjoy! The audience doesn’t usually applaud again until the end of the piece.

In most classical concerts—unlike jazz or pop—the audience never applauds during the music. They wait until the end of each piece, then let loose with their applause. But this can be a little tricky, because many pieces seem to end several times—in other words, they have several parts, or “movements.” These are listed in your program.

In general, musicians and your fellow listeners prefer not to hear applause during the pauses between these movements, so they can concentrate on the progress from one movement to the next. Symphonies and concertos have a momentum that builds from the beginning to the end, through all their movements, and applause can “break the mood,” especially when a movement ends quietly. Sometimes, though, the audience just can’t restrain itself, and you’ll hear a smattering of applause—or a lot of it—during the pause before the next movement. It’s perfectly OK to join in if you enjoyed the music, too.

(By the way, disregard anyone who “shushes” you for applauding between movements. It’s only in the last 50 years or so that audiences stopped applauding between movements, so you have music history on your side!)

What if you lose track, and aren’t sure whether the piece is truly over? One clue is to watch the conductor. Usually, s/he won’t relax between movements, but keep hands raised; the attention of the musicians will remain on the conductor. If in any doubt, it’s always safe to wait and follow what the rest of the audience does!

At the end of the piece, it’s time to let yourself go and let the musicians know how you felt about their playing. Many pieces end “big”—and you won’t have any doubt of what to do when! Some end very quietly, and then you’ll see the conductor keep hands raised for a few seconds at the end, to “hold the mood.” Then the hands will drop, someone will clap or yell “Bravo!”—and that’s your cue. There’s no need to restrain yourself. If you enjoyed what you heard, you can yell “Bravo!” too.

What if I need to cough during the music?

Everyone gets the urge to cough now and then. Worrying about disturbing your fellow listeners is a laudable impulse, but don’t let it ruin your enjoyment of the concert. There’s a funny thing about coughing—the less worried you are about it, the less likely you are to feel the urge! So chances are you’ll feel less need to cough if you’re prepared:

1. Be sure to visit the water fountain in the lobby before the concert, and at intermission.
2. If you have a cold, take some cough medicine in advance and bring wax paper-wrapped—or unwrapped—lozenges with you. (At some concerts, you’ll even see cough drops free for the taking in the lobby.) Have a few out and ready when the music begins.
3. Allow yourself to become involved in listening to the music and in watching the performers. The more you are absorbed in what’s going on, the less likely you are to cough.
4. If you absolutely can’t restrain yourself, try to wait for the end of a movement. Or “bury” your cough in a loud passage of music. If this is impossible, and you feel a coughing fit coming on, it’s perfectly acceptable to quietly exit the concert hall. Don’t be embarrassed—your fellow listeners will probably appreciate your concern for their listening experience.

What should I do with my cell phone during the concert?

Turn it off! The same goes for pagers and alarm watches. It’s a good idea to double-check in the few minutes before the concert begins, and again as intermission draws to a close. Better still, leave them at home if you can.

Doctors and emergency workers who are “on call” can give their pagers to an usher, who will summon them quietly if they are paged.

Can I take pictures?

Cameras, video recorders, and tape recorders aren’t permitted in concerts. If you happen to have one with you, be sure to stop at the coat-check and check it in before entering the auditorium. If you have a camera and want a souvenir of a special evening at the symphony, it can be fun to ask someone to take your picture outside the concert hall before you go in.

Why is there an intermission, and what should I do during it?

It’s a short rest period for the musicians and conductor—once you see how much activity goes into a performance, you’ll understand why they need a break!

Listening to music is also an intense activity (even if considerably less physical), and a break in the middle helps the audience concentrate better in the second half. Some concerts, though, have no intermission because it would interrupt the flow of a long work. Check the program before the concert so you know what’s coming.

Most intermissions are fifteen to twenty minutes long, which gives you time to socialize with your companions, get a drink or a snack in the lobby, visit the facilities, or simply sit in your seat and read the program notes. Do whatever puts you in a good frame of mind to hear the second half of the concert.

Can I bring my kids?

It depends on the concert and on the age of your kids. Many standard-length classical concerts are inappropriate for small children because they require an attention span that is difficult for youngsters to maintain. Most concerts also are held at night, and stretch beyond “bedtime.”

So if your children are very young, check with your local orchestra, which may present family or children’s concerts on weekends; these are a great way for families to enjoy classical music together. Young children are especially intrigued by the many different instruments of the orchestra and the way they are played. Try to sit up close to the orchestra, so your kids will have a great view of everything that’s going on.

To further build your children’s interest in classical music, play classical radio or CDs around the house. When they are old enough to sit quietly for an extended period, you may wish to bring them to the first half of a standard concert. An interested preteen or teenager could also have a marvelous time at an orchestra concert, particularly if it features several different pieces.

In all cases, it’s a good idea to check with the orchestra directly about the appropriateness of the concert you plan to attend with your kids. Also ask about discounts for students and children.

About the orchestra

A symphony orchestra is a collection of up to about 100 musicians who play instruments of four basic types:

1. Strings—violins (smallest, and highest in pitch), violas, cellos, and doublebasses (largest and lowest in pitch). These players sit in a semicircle directly in front of the conductor, and make up more than half the orchestra.
2. Woodwinds—flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and related instruments. These players sit a few rows back from the conductor, in the center of the orchestra.
3. Brass—trumpets, horns, trombones, tubas, and similar instruments. These instruments are the loudest, so you’ll see them at the back of the orchestra.
4. Percussion—the drums, bells, and other fascinating paraphernalia that are struck, plucked, rubbed, etc. This includes the kettledrums, the harp, and, on occasion, the piano. Some works use lots of different percussion; others may have a single musician playing the kettledrums, or no percussion at all. The percussion section is also found at the back of the orchestra.

Why are the musicians onstage playing before the concert begins?

Just like basketball players taking shots and practicing moves before the game, musicians need to warm up their muscles and focus their concentration. This is fun to listen to and to watch. Some of them are working on the passages they need to polish up before the performance, with no regard for what anyone else is practicing. Pick out the flute or the trumpet playing a solo line over and over, and listen to how it changes. Does it get smoother? If the player stops in the middle and starts over, can you hear the reason why? (It’s especially fun to recognize these solos later in the performance! Give a silent cheer for the player who nails the solo.)

Not all of the orchestra players practice onstage, of course. Just like the audience, everyone is doing his or her own thing. Some are talking; others are paging through their music. And some don’t come onstage at all until a minute or two before the performance. But at concert time, everyone is in place and ready to start.

Why do the musicians wear formal black clothes?

This is a long tradition that started a few centuries ago. Sometimes, these days, musicians dress a little more casually. But they still try to look uniform, so that the audience can concentrate on the music. Soloists are the exception: they often dress differently, because they are the focus of attention.

How come there are more stringed instruments than anything else?

The sound of each individual stringed instrument is softer than a brass or a woodwind instrument. But in large numbers, they make a magnificent, rich sonority.

Why do their bows move together?

The players of each individual section—first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and doublebasses—play in unison most of the time. So all the cellos move together, for instance. As you listen, noticing the different bowings for each section gives you a visual clue to sort out the various melodies you’re hearing.

What does the concertmaster do?

The concertmaster sits in the first chair of the first violins. S/he acts as leader of that section, but also plays a leadership role with orchestra as a whole. S/he is also the last orchestra musician to enter the stage before a concert, and cues the oboe to “tune” the orchestra.

Why do all the musicians tune to the oboe?

The penetrating tone of the oboe is easy for all players to hear, and its ability to sustain pitch is very secure. The oboe plays the note “A,” and all the players make sure their “A” is exactly on the same pitch as the oboe’s. This ensures that they all are in agreement about the tuning before the concert starts.

Why do the string players share stands?

Fewer stands mean that the musicians, who are moving around quite a bit, have more room to play freely. Also, because the strings play more continuously than the other parts, their page turns can fall in inconvenient places where there should be no break in the music. Look closely and you’ll see that the player on the outside keeps playing, while the player on the inside briefly stops playing to turn the page.

Why does the conductor leave after every piece of music?

This provides the conductor a little breather—a chance to collect his or her thoughts before starting the next piece. If the applause is very enthusiastic, the conductor will come onstage again, bow, and perhaps recognize some musicians who played important solos in the piece. S/he may depart again once or twice before moving on to the next piece on the program.

Why don’t the musicians smile while they play?

Look closely and you’ll see that some of them do! But in general, they are concentrating deeply, just like outfielders waiting for the fly ball or pitchers winding up to a curve ball. They’re “in the Zone.” After the music is over, you may see them smiling broadly.

What Makes Great Program Notes?

How can we engage our audience — both our present audience, and new people who’ll come in the future — with the program notes we write for our concerts?

I’ll start with the simplest, most basic observation. Anyone who comes to an orchestra concert also does other things. And among much else, concertgoers read. They read books, newspapers, and magazines. And so program notes take their place, for everyone who reads them, in a wider world. If you go to a concert, you’re not seized with a sudden urge to read scholarly journals that you wouldn’t read in normal life.

It should be obvious, then, that program notes shouldn’t be scholarly. But while I think we all know that, it might not always be entirely clear what “not scholarly” should really mean. How far, just for instance, should we go in the opposite direction? I think we should be lively, in the style of the best writing our audience encounters in the media, but I’d underline “best.” I’d be tempted to say the New York Times Book Review might be a model, but maybe not everyone in our audience is bookish. So think of the best writing — the most grounded, the most serious, but also the most engaging — that you see in top newspapers and good magazines, and aim in that direction.

But what about the content? People trained in classical music often want to talk about the structure of a composition — how the composer uses sonata form, let’s say, or how some musical theme develops — because this is what their training may have emphasized. They may also be in love with the history of a work, where it fits in the composer’s oeuvre, or how it influenced composers who came afterwards. All this is interesting if you’re already interested — and if, most crucially, you understand it all, for which you’d have to know sonata form, and also quite a lot about the history of classical music.

Will new ticket-buyers know these things? Do even our subscribers know them? And even if they did, is this really what they want to read about? Is this what’s most important? As a cautionary example, I’d cite some program notes I once read, when Colin Davis brought the London Symphony to New York. The program that night featured Romeo and Juliet, and the program notes went into depth about how much Berlioz learned from Beethoven and Shakespeare. Which could be fascinating, but what wasn’t said was why Colin Davis, plus an orchestra and chorus, would have crossed the ocean to play this music for us. Surely there’s something more immediate than Beethoven and Shakespeare, something that — once we’re gripped by it — might even make us thirst to know about the finer details.

And this is what programs notes, I think, might talk about: Why a piece is gripping, why we care about it, why we’re still performing it after all these years (or centuries),and — maybe most important — what some moments are that show these things, moments in the music that anyone can hear, even if they’ve never had a moment’s training in anything related to classical music. This tangible connection to the music is, for me, the crucial thing. Give your audience something to listen for, especially in difficult scores, but even in simpler works. Say, as a student in one of my Juilliard classes once said, that you love the entrance of the horns in the last movement of the Brahms First, because you feel a sense of redemption that the entire symphony has been building towards.

This student, I might add, was a trumpet player, so he was talking about a moment that he didn’t play. He’d just sit there in the trumpet section, longing for it. This suggests that program notes could most effectively draw on your musicians, and even your music director. What do the musicians love about the pieces on the program? What does the conductor (and any soloist involve) think is most important? What are they trying to do with the music? What’s hard to play (or conduct)? What are the easy parts? Take your audience behind the scenes. Don’t just tell them facts about the music. Also tell them things about performing it. Describe the concert as a human experience, which the audience shares with the conductor and musicians. And while this alone won’t transform your concert hall, you might find that your audience will thank you, will participate more actively in listening — and will want to come back.