New York and Boston are little more than 200 miles apart, but it often seems as if they're separated by a Jupiter-sized chasm - and not just because of sports rivalries like last week's Super Bowl. Years before the Giants, Patriots, Yankees and Red Sox began hostilities, the two northeastern cities had a hot debate over one of the most famously controversial pieces in American classical music.
That's "From the New World," an 1893 work by Czech composer Antonín Dvorák, a key component of the N.C. Symphony's "Dvorák and America" program this month. Dvorák had been brought to America by educator Jeanette Thurber, who wanted his perspective as an immigrant to help create an American musical identity.
Once here, Dvorák became entranced with African-American and Native American music and culture. He incorporated elements of black spirituals and Indian flourishes into "From the New World," which premiered in New York on Dec. 16, 1893. Reception from audience and critics alike was rapturous, with a standing ovation and reviews hailing the piece as "a great one" with a distinctive "American" flavor. The reaction couldn't have been more different when it played Boston two days later.
Still in debate
"It's unbelievable that, at a certain moment in time, two cities not very far apart occupied completely different planets," said Dvorák scholar Joseph Horowitz. "In Boston, Dvorák was denounced as a 'negrophile' and described as 'barbaric.' The notion of 'American' in New York was a polyglot melee, but it was the Mayflower in Boston. Boston seemed to embrace this social Darwinist notion of culture with Anglo-Saxons on top and everyone else - black, yellow and red as well as Slavic - on the bottom."
More than a century later, that notion seems as antiquated as Jim Crow laws. But Dvorák is still the subject of some controversy.
Horowitz, who will be on hand during "Dvorák and America" to lead discussions about the composer's impact and legacy, has caused a stir in scholarly circles for labeling Dvorák an American composer. Even though Dvorák was in America for only three years, he absorbed the music he heard here so well that his compositions are often mistaken for American spirituals.
"Dvorák's prophecy that Negro melodies would be the basis of American music to come was correct, even though he could not have foreseen jazz or rock 'n' roll," Horowitz said. "He could not have seen Duke Ellington or Elvis Presley coming, but they were still in line with what he intuited - that black music was the future of American music."
Horowitz's presentations are part of a slate of events happening across the state over the next week, financed in part by a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (the first orchestra-based project the NEH has funded in a decade). It all explores Dvorák's role in creating an American musical identity at a time very much like the present day. Thanks to an influx of immigrants and a severe economic recession, the America that Dvorák saw circa 1893 had a lot in common with the 21st-century model.
"Dvorák is a potent reminder that art is not created in the vacuum of a composer being in a room by himself," said Scott Freck, general manager of the N.C. Symphony. "Artists are always influenced by what's going on around them. Every piece is a time capsule, produced in a specific time and place."
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat