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‘Dvorak and America’ on PBS

SHARE ‘Dvorak and America’ on PBS

SPILLVILLE, Iowa — To a modern visitor, the verdant, undulating countryside around this northeast Iowa town looks like a Grant Wood painting.

To Czech composer Antonin Dvorák in the 1890s, it looked like home.

While living in the United States as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, Dvorák spent the summer of 1893 in Spillville, a town of 390 that works hard to keep memories of that visit alive.

Dvorák's time in this country and its influences on his music are examined in the documentary "Dvorák and America" (8 p.m., Ch. 7).

"Everything was motivated by the music," said New York filmmaker Lucille Carra, who wrote, directed and co-produced the film. "It's music-driven, so we tried to find emotional points to the music to use."

Shortly before leaving for Japan to work on her documentary "The Inland Sea," Carra had heard Dvorák's most famous work, Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (From the New World), popularly known as the New World Symphony, on the radio.

"I just really listened, maybe for the first time, and kind of took it in," Carra said.

Not long after that, Carra and her co-producer, Brian Cotnoir, got stuck in the mud on a mountaintop in Japan. As they worked to extricate themselves, they heard bells pealing in the distance. The music was from the Largo, or the "Going Home" segment, of the New World Symphony. It was 6 p.m., going-home time in Japan.

"Then we bought some CDs and it was like it all came together," Carra said. "I was reading the liner notes, and about Spillville, and everything occurred to me. It just snowballed from there."

The film follows Dvorák's move from Bohemia — a region in the Czech Republic — to America, and looks at the relationships he forged while living in this country from 1892 until 1895.

Dvorák opened the National Conservatory to all comers, including African-Americans. Black composers Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook were among his students, and they opened his eyes to a new form of music.

"He gets invited to New York to start this grand conservatory of music, to crystallize and develop an American musical tradition," said Chris Rossi, executive director of Humanities Iowa, which helped fund the film. "So he gets here and finds that well, by golly, we already have an American musical tradition and it's embedded in the Negro spiritual."

When Dvorák pointed that out in an article he wrote for the New York Herald, run under the headline "Real Value of Negro Melodies," he helped legitimize African-American music. He also stirred up a furor among traditionalists.

"Here was this quaint, shy, awkward person who comes and sees something about us that Americans are not seeing themselves," said Peter Alexander, a musicologist at the University of Iowa. "What sounds American to anybody in the world — Broadway, jazz, pop music — that all comes from the African-American influence. Dvorák somehow foresaw that.

"This film stresses that very, very successfully."

It also stresses the importance of Dvorák's time in Spillville, where Carra and her crew spent several days filming and talking to residents.

Dvorák had been invited to Spillville by musician Josef Kovarik, who had studied in Prague and felt the Iowa town, which had been settled by Bohemians, would give the renowned composer and his family a taste of home.

It did. The film shows how Dvorák delighted in the rural landscapes, his morning walks along the Turkey River, the singing of the birds and the oinking of pigs. He wrote to a friend about the "endless acres of field and meadow," the herds of cattle dotting the pastures and the graves of Czech countrymen "who sleep their last sleep here."

While in Spillville, Dvorák composed the String Quartet in F Major and String Quintet in E Flat. In a letter to a friend the day before leaving, Dvorák referred to those two pieces and the New World Symphony when he wrote, "I should never have written these works just so if I hadn't seen America."

The house in which Dvorák and his family stayed is now a museum, the first floor showcasing a collection of extravagantly carved clocks and the second floor devoted to Dvorák. The displays include two organs on which he composed and a violin he was believed to have played.

Dvorák also composed on the massive, 18-foot-tall pipe organ that sits in a loft above the entrance to St. Wenceslaus church. The organ, bought for $1,100 in 1876, underwent a $45,000 restoration in 1996 and is still used.

"When you put Iowa smack in the middle of the film, it pops out at you," Carra said. "You really see the kind of music he wrote in Spillville. It's smaller format. He wrote more chamber music. But musically, it holds a lot of weight."