According to the census of 2010, Spillville, Iowa, has a population of approximately 370 people, which makes it only about twenty percent larger than it was when Antonin Dvorak was visiting in the summer of 1893. Earlier that year, in the New York springtime, Dvorak had finished his symphony From the New World, and over the summer in Iowa he wrote two chamber works, a quartet and a quintet, both of which have come to be known as ‘American’.
One has to ask, when confronted with these titles, what ‘American’ actually means. It’s not an easy question. The only inarguably ‘American’ characteristic of Dvorak’s works is that they were written in Iowa and New York. Any further attribution of American ideas or atmosphere must remain a matter of conjecture or projection — it doesn’t really pay off to listen for American sources in the actual music. Dvorak himself wrote that the tracing of his themes to Native American or Spiritual sources was ‘nonsense’ and that “everything (he) wrote in England and America was Bohemian.” He may have incorporated musical elements built in part from what he heard in the places where he was, but whatever he heard, he heard with consciously Bohemian ears.
But perhaps it is as interesting to think of the culture a work can create as the of culture from which a work arises. Questions immediately arose not only about whether the music Dvorak wrote in the United States was essentially American, but also about whether what he wrote would define a part of what could be called American music. And to some extent Dvorak did succeed in that — there is no question that his landscaped Romanticism lives to this day in the music of Hollywood (in the music of Western movies especially) and influenced a great many composers seeking a kind of mythic-pastoral scope in orchestration. That alone is an American contribution.
One particular musical element deserves mention in this context: the use of the Pentatonic scale, upon which Dvorak relies heavily in all three of these pieces. (If you don’t know much music theory, you can sing the first bars of “In a Sentimental Mood,” or “Amazing Grace,” “Auld Lang Syne,” — innumerable pop songs rely completely upon it.) The pentatonic scale is not just a European idea: a huge number of cultures employ it, even without necessarily naming it as such. It seems, for lack of a better word, ‘natural’, and the application of ornaments and inflections can make it seem to belong exclusively to whoever sings, or to whatever culture employs it. That is to say: pentatonic writing is ripe for precisely the kind of projection which has been applied to Dvorak’s American-period works. This makes them multiply meaningful, accessibly folksy, and perhaps double-edged.
Meanwhile, back on the farm: Spillville, Iowa, was largely a Czech outpost. Dvorak was not there by accident. He was invited there by a Czech-American student. Spillville contains the oldest Czech Catholic church in the country. Dvorak could play Czech hymns on the organ, and the congregation would know the words… all of which is also, in its way, rather American as well.