Dvořák Paints a Tree
By Rob Kapilow
One of the overriding themes of Stanford Live’s programming this season is the idea of voice. Where does an artist’s voice come from? What are the influences that shape an individual’s voice, and in what ways are individual voices connected to national identities? In the case of my three What Makes It Great? programs this season: in what ways did America shape or influence Dvořák’s American Quartet, Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musicals, and Duke Ellington’s jazz?
The literary critic Harold Bloom has a fascinating, if somewhat hermitic, theory about artistic influence, which I will now hopelessly oversimplify. All art, he says, is fundamentally created in response to previous art. A painter paints a tree not in response to seeing a tree but in response to seeing another painting of a tree. Now the truly provocative part. Weak artists, Bloom says, imitate their predecessors, while strong artists creatively misread them.
In a creative misreading, an artist takes what they need from their predecessor and uses it for their own artistic purposes, thereby clearing imaginative space for them to create something new. In Bloom’s view, there are no texts but only relationships between texts. Milton misreads Shakespeare, Blake misreads Milton, etc. Or in musical terms, Mozart misreads Haydn, Beethoven misreads Mozart, Schubert misreads Beethoven, and Dvořák misreads Brahms.
Take the case of the work that launched Dvořák’s career in 1878, the Slavonic Dances, op. 46, for Piano, Four Hands. Though there is clearly a creative misreading of Brahms at the heart of the work—Brahms’ Hungarian Dances were Dvořák’s model—the influences on Dvořák’s newly emerging voice go far beyond that of simply a precursor piece. The work was both commissioned and published by Brahms’ publisher, Fritz Simrock. Its title not only reflects Dvořák’s compositional and political ambitions but also shows Simrock’s astute understanding of the contemporary classical-music scene in Europe. For Dvořák, writing the Slavonic Dances was a political statement, a reaction against the overwhelming dominance of Austria in Europe’s political and cultural landscape. Dvořák’s dances are purposefully not Austrian dances—waltzes, minuets, or Ländler—but Slavonic dances modeled on the dances of Poland, Ukraine, Serbia, and elsewhere. Writing the Slavonic Dances was part of Dvořák’s lifelong struggle to establish the legitimacy of the Czech language and culture. He spent years battling to have his publisher print his name as “Antonín” rather than the German form “Anton”—They eventually compromised in Solomon-like fashion on the initials Ant.!—as well as to have the titles of his pieces printed in Czech as well as German in his scores.
Dvořák’s nationalistic fervor was, of course, part of a much wider European phenomenon, and the search for identifiably national musical voices, country by country, was a central development of the second half of the nineteenth century. The enormous success of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, published by Simrock in 1860, had already shown the public’s enthusiasm for fundamentally Viennese music flavored with piquant nationalistic touches, and Simrock’s decision to commission the Slavonic Dances was clearly a response to Brahms’ earlier success. Today, Dvořák’s dances are heard almost exclusively in their orchestral versions in concert halls and on recordings; however, in the nineteenth century, four-hand piano music written for amateur music making at home was the route to commercial success (there were more pianos than orchestras), and it was the original piano-duet version of the Slavonic Dances that brought Dvořák and Simrock fame and fortune.
One of Dvořák’s greatest gifts as a composer was his ability to write effectively for instrumentalists of widely varying levels of ability. Though the Slavonic Dances surely benefit from performance by gifted professional pianists, they can also be played successfully by amateur pianists, and both piano parts are challenging enough to be rewarding yet not so difficult as to be overwhelming. In addition, the frequent repeats of individual phrases and entire sections of music give both listeners and performers multiple opportunities to grasp the piece’s materials. If a rhythm, figuration, or ensemble problem trips up the performers the first time through, by the time the passage has returned a third or a fourth time, the technical or musical challenge can usually be overcome. The Slavonic Dances were a perfect match for Dvořák’s and Simrock’s audience, and the music gives us a wonderfully vivid picture of the abilities, needs, and interests of the performers and listeners who made up that audience.
All of these factors influenced Dvořák (to come back full circle to Harold Bloom) as he began to find his voice through a creative misreading of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. One of the key differences between the two works—one of the ways Dvořák cleared imaginative space for himself—was in their relationship to their source material. Put simply, Brahms’ dances were settings of actual folk melodies while Dvořák’s were not. The Slavonic Dances were an attempt to capture the spirit of the folk dances of his native Bohemia as well as those of Slovakia, Moravia, Silesia, Serbia, Poland, and Ukraine, but Dvořák created idealized forms of these dances, not transcriptions or arrangements of actual folk material. He absorbed the folk dance forms that he had heard throughout his life and filtered them through his own extremely sophisticated, European compositional language, creating an effortless fusion of the serious and the popular.
Dvořák became famous when he began to bring all of himself to his music, when he stopped excluding the Bohemian folk elements from his work as being “not classical” and began including them. When he came to America in 1892, however, a whole new set of influences both personal and musical inspired significant changes in his music. How he creatively misread America—how his three-year visit changed his voice—is the story of his American String Quartet and the story of our opening What Makes It Great? program of the season. How influence, imitation, and creative misreading give shape to identity is the principal question at the heart of that story, and it can provide a meaningful filter through which to hear many of the Stanford Live programs this season. We may all be influenced by our predecessors, personally and artistically, but it is how we creatively misread them that ultimately determines our voice.
Upcoming Event: Wed, Oct 11
Rob Kapilow's What Makes it Great? with the St. Lawrence String Quartet