Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,
and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.
For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.
—Walt Whitman, “For You, O Democracy,” first published in Leaves of Grass (1856)
In 1892, Antonín Dvo?ák came to America to serve as director of the National Conservatory in New York. His American years were among the most fruitful of Dvo?ák’s career, and the music he produced bears an unmistakably American stamp. Dvo?ák was very specific in saying how he drew inspiration in America, and what future he saw for American music. He found one community within America has an inherent sense for music and had produced something unique and distinctively American; something worthy of broader notice in the world. It was not the many European-oriented imitators of Wagner and Brahms then so common in American conservatories, orchestras and operas. It was something from America’s heart.
He wrote about this in an article published in the New York Herald:
I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States…. [Negro melodies] are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them… In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music…
He proceeded to demonstrate this with a series of works, of which the most notable are the Symphony “From the New World,” the cantata “The American Flag,” the cello concerto in B Minor, and a string quartet he composed in the course of a summer vacation in Spillville, Iowa, known to posterity as the “American Quartet”–but derided by some contemporaries as the “Nigger Quartet” because it made obvious and sustained use of African-American spirituals (especially in the memorable second movement). This latter work, generated among the corn fields of the American heartland, has stood the test of time and is now widely recognized as the most important string quartet of the outgoing years of the nineteenth century.
Listen to Antonín Dvo?ák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F, op. 96, from a performance during the 2007 Bowdoin International Music Festival. It sings the same songs as Walt Whitman, songs from the heart of America, beautiful and plaintive. The performers are Sabrina Tabby and Caeli Smith, violins, Madeline Smith, viola, Genevieve Tabby, cello.