on dvorak and the midwest.

January 8, 2010 § 1 Comment

FLAT. Endless corn and soy fields gone fallow, gently kissed with snow. Charming red barns meant for a picture postcard. Eighteen wheelers careening down Route 80 with a death wish for a lone, tiny 2-door black Civic. (Well, let’s discount the last one as much as possible…) That was the vision I encountered as I sped along the interstate en route to Chicago and the Midwest Clinic. To some, it’s plain, but I find the aesthetic glorious and can understand how one of western classical music’s greats, Antonin Dvorak, did too. It’s funny to think that [minus vehicular transportation] some of the places I visited in Illinois and Iowa have changed little since the days when the great Czech composer came to our beautiful country and was enraptured with the landscape and the people he encountered. The melodies and charming rhythmic motifs in much of his writing captures the essence of the midwest— the simple, dreamy tune of a rancher surveying the vastness of his homestead, the whoops and “hoo-hahs” of the free-spirited cattle drivers, as well as the cyclic, organic pulsations and plaintive calls reminiscent of Native American music. (Why is it that on a road trip to the largest music education conference in the nation, I can’t even break from music for a moment?) I breathe in the landscape deeply, trying to put myself in Dvorak’s shoes.

Why is this so timely? One of the pieces the Chamber Sinfonia (MSU) is playing this semester for our 17 Jan concert is the Dvorak Serenade for Strings, first movement. Dvorak wrote this piece well before his move to America, so it’s interesting to hear the similarities and differences between both periods in his compositional career. Regardless of when and where he was professionally, the sweet richness, beauty, ethnic influences, and —at times— a nod to his admired contemporary Brahms make playing, conducting, and listening to Dvorak’s music a treat.


Just as he would weave the Native American-inspired rhythmic motifs throughout his “American” pieces like the F-major string quartet and the ninth symphony, he takes a charming, dancey little European lilt of an eight note, two sixteenth notes and passes it amongst the the different parts of the string orchestra in the Serenade’s first movement. He also christens each section of the orchestra with the one-bar melody present from the beginning measure, which is just as much a melody as it is an ostinato— what multi-faceted ingenuity on Dvorak’s part! The violas are very much the unsung heroes— rhythmically directing the drama from the backseat— although they are justly credited in Dvorak’s writing when he allows them to steal the show in each E-major section’s close, heralding in the G-major section the first time and the closing the coda with echoing off-beats the second time. The basses and celli are rewarded with challenging parts and many statements of the melody, though at times to their chagrin, encountering the string player’s (or probably anyone’s) nightmare —a double sharp!

The G-major section has a personality of its own, and there’s something very comical about the first violins’ mid-measure interruption of the melody. (I let the outside players on each desk  play a gleeful harmonic.) The drive of the G-major section is quite different from the ambling E-major section. (I was quite surprised to hear on some recordings an almost double-dotting!)

What a privilege we have, undertaking this work! Dvorak’s gifts as a composer shine true, and we get a taste of what to expect from a man who will later be touched by life in America. The same man —but renewed, permeated with inspiration from the place that I myself found this past December.

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