Saturday, January 12, 2008

Music and race: Antonín Dvořák the negrophile

Robert Schwartz and independently Jorge Pullin kindly sent me a pretty interesting article by Joseph Horowitz, an artistic advisor to orchestras:
New World Symphony and Discord
It describes the relationships between race and music in Boston and New York at the end of the 19th century.

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was assigned the task to create the American national music. He was impressed by many things in America but he decided that the "negro melodies" such as "Swing Low" and "Deep River" were the "future for American music". He thought that the black themes would penetrate into classical compositions while jazz became a completely new genre but his prediction was nontrivial anyway.

In Boston, Dvořák's opinions were politically incorrect because the blacks were "not inherently musical" according to many powerful figures over there. For example, a very influential Harvard professor argued that blacks and whites were different species. Dvořák was labeled a "negrophile". Also, critics in Boston newspapers routinely and "scientifically" described Dvořák's and Tchaikovsky's music as "primitive" and "barbarian". In New York, however, the people who thought that the blacks were "inherently musical" were stronger and created a much better environment for Dvořák.

The New World Symphony back in Vienna

One can see that Antonín Dvořák always cared primarily about music and the pure excitement from it but the environment full of snobs and political preconceptions influenced him anyway.

The 21st century

In some sense, I feel that during the decade in the U.S., I encountered less American culture - including jazz - than what we are normally exposed to in Central Europe. For example, a party on Thursday was in the style of Chicago of the 1930s, gangsters blackmailing bankers, shooting, prohibition, jazz, Chicago the musical (e.g. the Czech version of All That Jazz that I've only known since they preloaded it on an MP3 player I bought), roulettes, and shooting contests. I don't remember things like that from America. The closest thing of this kind I remember was a jazz evening with Natalia Saulina and Chris Beasley. ;-)

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