- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

David Hurwitz’s Dvorak: Romantic Music’s Most Versatile Genius

(Amadeus, $27.95, 180 pages) is not a biography of the great Czech composer but an enthusiastic survey of his work, samples of which are included on the two CDs that come with the book. Referring only obliquely to Dvorak’s generally contented family life (except for two tragic years in the mid-1870s when all three of his young children died), Mr. Hurwitz concentrates instead on “how a kid from the Bohemian countryside created a personal language of universal appeal and, in so doing, gave an entire nation its musical identity — even jumpstarting the process in at least two others (England and the United States) along the way.”

In contrast to many other composers, Dvorak, Mr. Hurwitz notes, was not primarily a pianist but a violinist and he had extraordinary practical experience playing in an opera orchestra, which undergirded his gift for orchestral scoring. He then exploited what the author calls his “inexhaustible fund of superb musical ideas” to gain early and enduring international acclaim.

The author debunks “the slanted perception” of Dvorak’s friendship with Brahms, in which a sophisticated Brahms is contrasted with the younger country bumpkin who has a knack for writing good melodies. Mr. Hurwitz notes that in an effort not to be typed as “the Czech Brahms,” Dvorak used the term “Slavonic” to describe his efforts in a purportedly nationalist idiom. And Dvorak’s tunes were original, whereas Brahms’ Hungarian Dances were not.

In his analysis of Dvorak’s works, Mr. Hurwitz says that he originally intended to cover just the best, but he ended up dealing with more than 90 individual works, from symphonies and chamber music to operas (sadly neglected in part because of the language problem), choral works, songs, and tone poems. He concludes that “a huge quantity of music by any measure deserves to be considered extraordinary. I cannot think of another composer after Beethoven who demonstrated Dvorak’s scope and productivity while maintaining such a high standard of overall quality.”

With respect to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” Mr. Hurwitz points out that by trying to capture the spirit of “Negro melodies” in the symphony, Dvorak “was not actually copying them any more than he copied Czech folk tunes. Remember that the fake spiritual ‘Goin’ Home’ came from the symphony, not the other way around.”

As for Dvorak’s concertos, Mr. Hurwitz suggests that because Dvorak was not a virtuoso performer himself, he tended to “treat the orchestra and the soloist as equal participants in a joint endeavor.” While arguing that the violin and piano concertos deserve a wider audience, Mr. Hurwitz reserves his highest praise for Dvorak’s famous Cello Concerto. He believes that, along with the “New World” Symphony, the “American” Quartet, the String Quintet Op. 97, and the Humoresques, for piano, the Cello Concerto shares “a melodic inspiration clearly drawn from Negro spirituals and American popular song, while always sounding inimitably Slavic and totally like Dvorak.”

For the general reader who wants to gain a new appreciation of the amazing output of this versatile composer who spent three of his most creative years in America, Mr. Hurwitz’s book and its accompanying CDs are highly recommended.

President James Madison had a powerful intellect, but he was a small man, reticent in conversation, and charisma-free. Not so his wife, Dolley, the subject of Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison (Corinthian, $29.95, 444 pages), a new biography by South Carolina author Richard N. Cote. In Mr. Cote’s words, “Dolley’s common sense, personal warmth, and ability to adapt enabled her to evolve quickly and successfully into the role of congressman’s wife, then hostess for President Jefferson, and, ultimately, First Lady of the nation.”

James Madison was Dolley’s second husband. She was living in Philadelphia with her parents when, at age 21, she met and married a handsome young lawyer, John Todd. Their marriage appears to have been happy, but after three years Todd succumbed to yellow fever, leaving Dolley to bring up two sons.

The young widow did not lack for suitors, but the most persistent and ultimately successful one was the new congressman from Virginia, James Madison. Dolley moved easily into her new role as a politician’s wife and mistress of his Virginia estate, Montpellier. Her husband became secretary of state under Jefferson, and Jefferson, a widower, made Dolley his unofficial hostess during his presidency.

James Madison succeeded Jefferson, but his two terms in the White House were troubled ones as the United States sought to isolate itself from the Napoleonic wars in Europe. When Britain persisted in violating what Madison perceived as America’s rights as a neutral, the result was the disastrous War of 1812. With an invading British army at the outskirts of Washington, and her husband at the front, it fell to Dolley Madison to evacuate the White House. Famously, she supervised the removal of a portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Paul Jennings, President Madison’s valet, would later write, “Mrs. Madison [then] ordered her carriage, and passing through the dining-room, caught up what silver she could crowd into her old-fashioned [handbag], and then jumped into the chariot with her servant girl Sukey.”

The British proceeded to burn the White House; the Madisons would never live there again. Dolley, meanwhile, crossed into Virginia and met briefly with her husband. They agreed to meet again at an estate in present-day McLean, but missed several proposed rendezvous in the chaos that followed the fall of Washington. In March 1817, at the close of Madison’s presidency, James and Dolley returned to Montpellier, where they sought to return the estate to prosperity. The bane of their existence was one of Dolley’s sons, Payne. A gambler and a drunk, Payne ran up debts wherever he went, to the despair of his parents. Mr. Cote estimates that Madison may have spent as much as $40,000 covering Payne’s debts and believes that Madison concealed the full amount from Dolley.

When James Madison died in 1836, Dolley returned to Washington. Congress paid her $30,000 for the first three volumes of her husband’s papers, and Dolley set up court in a handsome house overlooking Lafayette Park. Her name and her conduct during the war with England made her the leading hostess of the capital, and she enjoyed her role immensely. Alas, the money ran out. For several years Dolley lived in poverty, dependent on the charity of friends.

A favorite slave, whom she had sold to Daniel Webster, was encouraged by Webster to bring her occasional provisions. Then a second payment from Congress for her husband’s papers allowed Dolley to live her final years in relative comfort. Dolley Madison knew both good times and bad times. She enjoyed the good years and kept her serenity through the others.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.


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