Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Anton Dvorak out in the corn

[Want my advice on reading this?--go to the bottom and start the music, then read through the post]

Could have been different. Could have been a whole lot different. Anton Dvorak wasn't just the neighbor's distant cousin house guest. He'd already spent a year as the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, where he taught composition and led the choir and orchestra. The year was 1892, and the conservatory was celebrating four hundred years of European/American history with a true European at its head.

Dvorak was sophisticated, celebrated, and mightily accomplished, and his sojourn in rural Iowa might well have been totally different. He could well have been snobbish and petulant, a pain in the Czech butt. But one of his most trusted devotees, a man who'd spent time at the Prague Conservatory, then accompanied Dvorak to New York and acted as his interpreter, Jan Joseph Kovarik, recommended that he spend a summer in tiny Spillville, Iowa, where he spent a summer in a community of 400 or so Czech Bohemian immigrant farmers, his people, you might say. 

By habit and inclination, Dvorak set and maintained a daily schedule to which the Spillville-ites could set their old-country clocks. The maestro arose at four, walked around town and along the Turkey River for an hour, then returned home, had some breakfast, did a little composition, and headed off for St. Wenceslaus Church (you can stop by yourself today) to play the organ for morning mass at seven. 

The word on the street in Spillville is that the old Czech women who gathered there daily for mass were shocked when the old organ began to play, but in no time they grew to love his music so greatly that he was asked to play for their weddings. . .and their funerals.

Often enough, he'd play cards and drink beer with the locals at the local pub. He loved listening to old folks talk about the trials of homesteading--Czech immigrants had come to rural, northeast Iowa in the late 1860s and 70s. And the people of Spillville loved him, although his Czech maid used to get angry at the composer for taking notes for his music on the six-inch cuffs of his white shirts, scribbling notes in ink she found it almost impossible to clean up. 

He'd just finished the New World Symphony when he came to town, but his sojourn among so slight a place resulted in new compositions, including the "String Quartet in F" (in just thirteen days) and the "String Quartet in E-flat." Even though it was Iowa Czechs that drew him to Spillville, even though he specifically wanted to be among his people after a wild year in New York, his time in the northeast corner of the state made him more sure that American composers needed to lend an ear to their own native sounds--both African-American musical traditions and Native American syncopation. 

Northeast Iowa has much to commend itself, including a rolling, wooded countryside one simply doesn't associate with Iowa prairies, not to mention towns like Spillville and Decorah that may, in twilight or warm summer mornings, feel oddly European right here in "the tall corn state." 

There's an old story about Dvorak and Spillville that's probably myth, but it goes like this. On one of his early morning walks along the Turkey River, he rounded a bend to find a rural woman bathing. Clothed or unclothed? Think the worst--or the best. Regardless of her attire or lack of it, that morning's delight resulted in his Rusalka, the story of a water nymph, one of the Czech composers few lyric operas. 

The truth is, you can't believe everything the descendants of those Czech folk in Spillville will tell you when you visit. There's a sure quantity of myth about it all, you can bet on that. What's indisputable is that such mythology grew out of love.

It could have gone the other way--"world renowned artist comes to town, his nose in the air." But it didn't. Not at all. It's as sweet a story as you can hear anywhere in rural Iowa.

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