Dvorák – From Johannes Brahms to Duke Ellington

Dvorák’s 9th symphony (From The New World) is wonderful. It sounds so “American,” yet is composed entirely of Bohemian folk themes, though Dvorák listened many times to Harry Burleigh (an African-American) singing Negro Spirituals just for him at the National Conservatory of Music in New York (Burleigh was a student), which Dvorák directed during 1893-1895. Dvorák blended the themes of his homeland into the sound and spirit of the musical America that Burleigh exemplified. As quoted in the New York Herald in 1893, Dvorák said:

“I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. These 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. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or any purpose.”

Another of Dvorák’s African-American students at the conservatory was William Marion Cook, a violinist and composer. Cook, along with Fats Waller and Sidney Bechet mentored Duke Ellington in 1915-1916, encouraging the teenage Ellington to take his musical knowledge and talent into public performances (gigs in New York and on the road), and launch a musical career.

Dvorák himself had been discovered, mentored and financially aided by Johannes Brahms, and they remained close friends for the rest of their lives (for Brahms till 1897, for Dvorák till 1904).

(See wikipedia articles for Harry Burleigh, Will Marion Cook, and Duke Ellington).

So, from Brahms to Ellington, by way of Dvorák, Burleigh and Cook.

Dvorák’s New World Inquiry
How a Czech composer helped America find its authentic voice (2004)