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‘Dvorák’s Prophecy’ Review: America’s Silent Tradition

The Czech composer came to New York with the conviction that African-American melodies would be the ‘seedbed’ for their nation’s 20th-century music.

Interviewed in 1893, one year into his three-year stay in the U.S., Dvořák contended that “the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” In “Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music,” Mr. Horowitz—a distinguished cultural historian of American classical music and the author of 10 books on the subject—examines Dvořák’s prophecy and what became of it.

Dvořák came to New York in 1892 to lead the National Conservatory of Music. To Jeannette Thurber, the founder of the conservatory, Dvořák possessed two desirable traits: He was an undeniable voice of his people—the Czechs—and a composer thoroughly versed in the traditional forms and genres of the European past. Thurber envisioned a school of American composers possessing comparable traits, tethered to tradition yet expressing a distinctly American perspective. Like Dvořák, Mr. Horowitz writes, Thurber was “convinced that African Americans owned America’s musical seedbed.”

Burleigh was a student at the National Conservatory when Dvořák chose him to be his assistant. Burleigh would go on to greatest acclaim as an arranger of spirituals. Mr. Horowitz also illuminates the achievements of other black composers, including William Levi Dawson, Florence Price and Nathaniel Dett, all of whom, like Burleigh, drew from their shared heritage. Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony,” premiered in 1934 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, is for Mr. Horowitz a “buried treasure.” Price’s Symphony No. 3, according to a reviewer of the 1940 premiere, was touched by “true greatness.” Mr. Horowitz finds Dett’s oratorio “The Ordering of Moses,” premiered in 1937 by the Cincinnati Symphony, “hot with pathos and ecstasy.”

That these and other works by Dawson, Price and Dett didn’t gain greater traction had much to do with institutional bias. At the time, writes Mr. Horowitz, “African Americans did not play in American orchestras, or conduct them, or perform concertos with them.” But, the author maintains, there was another factor at play: aesthetics. Between the two world wars, there arose a modernist bias against the familiar and the vernacular. These were the very sources that Dvořák held dear. In an 1895 article for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Dvořák said a composer “must prick his ear for music,” making sure to listen closely “to every whistling boy, every street singer or blind organ-grinder.” As a matter of course, Dvořák believed, American composers had to use the music they heard; it was a kind of common currency.