How an Iowa summer influenced one of the world’s most celebrated composers
Experts say Antonin Dvorak drew inspiration from nature.
Birds chirping, a creek splashing … nothing mother nature offered seemed off limits for the famed Czech composer.
And, for one summer 125 years ago, it was the sounds of rural northeastern Iowa that influenced him to pen work still celebrated in symphony halls and opera houses around the world.
“Dvorak has the gift of making us all feel Bohemian,” said David Neely, music director and principal conductor at the Des Moines Metro Opera. “All feel homesick for the Czech homeland. Even if we’re Irish.”
The “New World Symphony” composer traveled in 1892 from his native Prague to direct the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.
It was there that he grew homesick, Neely said, for Czech culture.
An assistant at the time told Dvorak about a town in Iowa, Spillville, where a few hundred European immigrants, mostly Bohemian, lived. Still today a town of about 400, Spillville sits about 12 miles southwest of Decorah.
Dvorak and his family headed west during the academic break in summer 1893, hoping to find a bit of Bohemia in the Midwest’s rolling hills.
“Dvorak was a small-town guy, anyway,” Neely said. “He came from a small town. ... He loved the countryside.”
At 51 years old, Dvorak spent his days in Spillville walking along the Turkey River and playing organ for a local congregation, St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church.
He once wrote a letter reflecting on the trip. It reads: “I’m healthy and in good spirits."
“The quiet life was where he got his energy and drew his inspiration," Neely said.
He rented for three months the second story of a brick building; it’s since been transformed into a Dvorak exhibit (and a Bily Clock museum) for the public to visit.
He found in Spillville familiar food and spirits. The community just felt like home, explained Cheryl Novak, member of a Spillville historical group.
“He’d walk along with his little bucket of beer like everybody did back in the day,” Novak said, laughing.
This Midwestern sabbatical wasn’t all leisure, though. The Winneshiek County hills and song of the red-winged blackbird stirred Dvorak to produce his “American Quartet,” Neely said.
It’s also rumored that in those months he polished what would become one of the world’s most popular symphonies, “New World Symphony.” He’d premiere the piece later that year at Carnegie Hall.
“One critic felt that ... he had done the hitherto impossible of capturing a national American spirit in the New World Symphony,” Neely said. “His time in the Midwest would have been a large part of this influence.”
“Iowa clearly gave him something. It was a gift for him.”
Dvorak returned to Prague in 1895. He died at age 62 in 1904.
But, his music continues to live.
Having been 125 years since his walks in rural Iowa, the opera plans to celebrate Dvorak this month by producing “Rusalka,” a fantasy of water goblins and witches that he premiered in 1901.
The performance opens June 22.
“He left a legacy in this country,” Neely said. “Not many composers did things like that.”
Find more information on “Rusalka” at desmoinesmetroopera.org.
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So, About That Time…, a new series from the Register’s Matthew Leimkuehler, highlights Iowa’s obscure and overlooked musical moments. Have a story you’d like to share? Reach him at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8358.