What brought Dvořák to the New World?

How an irresistible offer led Dvořák to uproot himself and his family from Bohemia to New York

why did Antonin Dvorak move to New York

When did Dvořák move to America?

In September 1892 Dvořák and his family left their comfortable life in Bohemia to sail for America. But by the shores of America on 27 September 1892, Dvořák may have regretted making the journey to America. His transatlantic voyage on the passenger steamship SS Saale had been horrendous – a storm-tossed, nine-day trip from Bremen, Germany to Hoboken, New Jersey with his wife Anna and two children in harness. ‘Everyone on the ship was ailing,’ he later wrote. Everyone, that is, except himself, who seemed strangely immune to the sickly swell of the ocean.

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Why did Dvořák go to New York city?

Why had he uprooted his family from a comfortable existence in their native Bohemia? As so often when the US beckons, money was part of the attraction. Dvořák was nearing 50, and already the internationally esteemed composer of eight symphonies, when he was first approached by the National Conservatory of Music in New York City to be its new director.

Its founder, the wealthy Jeannette Thurber, offered Dvořák an annual salary of $15,000, about 25 times what he was currently earning as a professor at the Prague Conservatoire. To sweeten the deal further, Dvořák would have four months’ holiday in the summer. In return he would work three hours a day at the Conservatory, teaching ‘the most talented pupils only’, rehearsing the orchestra and conducting concerts.

Despite Thurber’s blandishments, Dvořák was initially reluctant – it was a big move to make by any standards. But Anna coaxed him, and he eventually signed the immaculately handwritten, six-page contract bound in green ribbon which would take them to the US. Soon after arriving, the family moved into a five-room residence at 327 East 17th Street in Manhattan, and Dvořák started his Conservatory duties.

Thurber was, it turned out, more than just a rich celebrity-chaser hunting for someone famous to bring cachet to her academy. Harbouring a serious artistic vision, she hoped Dvořák’s experience of building a distinctively Czech idiom in his music would encourage American composers to do the same and found their own national classical idiom.

Introduced to African American spirituals by one of his students, Harry Burleigh, Dvořák soon saw major possibilities. ‘In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,’ he famously commented. ‘There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.’

Burleigh himself went on to be a composer, and Dvořák’s own music was strongly affected by the fresh sounds he was hearing and the ‘great and magnificent’ sights he was seeing in the US. Their influence suffused the symphony that he wrote for the New York Philharmonic – the Ninth, entitled ‘From the New World’ – although Dvořák insisted all the melodies in it were his own. The work premiered to huge acclaim at Carnegie Hall in December 1893, and the ‘American’ String Quartet (No. 12) and Cello Concerto also date from Dvořák’s US period. Without America’s influence, they may never have been written.

How long did Dvořák stay in NYC and when did he go back to Bohemia?

By early 1895, two-and-a-half years after Dvořák’s ship docked in Hoboken, the call of Bohemia was reasserting itself. ‘I will thank God when I am among my own people once more and perhaps sitting somewhere in the woods of Vysoka,’ he wrote. In April, he duly returned to his native country, and by November was working at the Prague Conservatoire again. New York did not forget him – today a bronze statue of the composer stands in Stuyvesant Square Park, a block away from where he made his American home. 

We named Dvořák the 14th greatest composer ever

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Read our reviews of the latest Dvořák recordings here