- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000


To a modern visitor, the verdant, undulating countryside around this northeast Iowa town looks like a Grant Wood painting.

To Czech composer Antonin Dvorak in the 1890s, it looked like home.

While living in the United States as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvorak (1841-1904) spent the summer of 1893 in Spillville, a town of 390 that works hard to keep memories of that visit alive.

Dvorak's time in this country and its influences on his music are examined in the documentary "Dvorak and America," to be shown at 10 tonight on PBS (Channel 26).

"Everything was motivated by the music," says New York filmmaker Lucille Carra, who wrote, directed and co-produced the film. "It's music-driven, so we tried to find emotional points to the music to use."

Shortly before she left for Japan to work on her documentary "The Inland Sea," Miss Carra had heard on the radio Dvorak's most famous work, Symphony No. 9 in E Minor ("From the New World"), popularly known as the "New World" Symphony.

"I just really listened, maybe for the first time, and kind of took it in," she says.

Not long after that, Miss Carra and her co-producer, Brian Cotnoir, got stuck in the mud on a mountaintop in Japan. As they worked to extricate themselves, they heard bells pealing in the distance. The music was from the "Largo," or the "Going Home" segment, of the "New World" Symphony. It was 6 p.m., going-home time in Japan.

"Then we bought some CDs and it was like it all came together," Miss Carra says. "I was reading the liner notes, and about Spillville, and everything occurred to me. It just snowballed from there."

The film follows Dvorak's move from Bohemia a region in today's Czech Republic to the United States and looks at the relationships he forged while living in this country from 1892 to 1895.

Dvorak opened the National Conservatory to all comers, including black Americans. Black composers Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook were among his students, and they opened his eyes to a new form of music.

"He gets invited to New York to start this grand conservatory of music, to crystallize and develop an American musical tradition," says Chris Rossi, executive director of Humanities Iowa, which helped fund the film. "So he gets here and finds that well, by golly, we already have an American musical tradition and it's embedded in the Negro spiritual."

When Dvorak pointed that out in an article he wrote for the New York Herald, which ran under the headline "Real Value of Negro Melodies," he helped make black American music legitimate. He also stirred up a furor among traditionalists.

"Here was this quaint, shy, awkward person who comes and sees something about us that Americans are not seeing themselves," says Peter Alexander, a musicologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "What sounds American to anybody in the world Broadway, jazz, pop music that all comes from the African-American influence. Dvorak somehow foresaw that.

"This film stresses that very, very successfully," he says.

It also stresses the importance of Dvorak's time in Spillville, where Miss Carra and her crew spent several days filming and talking to residents.

Dvorak had been invited to Spillville by musician Josef Kovarik, who had studied in Prague and believed that the Iowa town, which had been settled by Bohemians, would give the renowned composer and his family a taste of home.

It did. The film shows how Dvorak delighted in the rural landscapes, his morning walks along the Turkey River, the singing of the birds and the oinking of pigs. He wrote to a friend about the "endless acres of field and meadow," the herds of cattle dotting the pastures and the graves of Czech countrymen "who sleep their last sleep here."

While in Spillville, Dvorak composed the String Quartet in F major and String Quintet in E flat. In a letter to a friend the day before leaving, Dvorak referred to those two pieces and the "New World" Symphony when he wrote, "I should never have written these works just so if I hadn't seen America."

The house in which Dvorak and his family stayed is now a museum. The first floor showcases a collection of extravagantly carved clocks, and the second floor is devoted to Dvorak. The displays include two organs on which he composed and a violin he was believed to have played.

Dvorak also composed on the massive, 18-foot-tall pipe organ that sits in a loft above the entrance to St. Wenceslaus Church. The organ, bought for $1,100 in 1876, underwent a $45,000 restoration in 1996 and is still used.

"When you put Iowa smack in the middle of the film, it pops out at you," Miss Carra says. "You really see the kind of music he wrote in Spillville. It's smaller format. He wrote more chamber music. But musically, it holds a lot of weight."

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