BY LARRY HERZ
Antonín Dvořák was born near Prague in 1841, then part of Bohemia, in the Austrian Empire. He was an impoverished music teacher and composer until winning the Austrian State Prize in 1874, and again in 1877. His prolific output of folk-inspired music captivated some and repelled others. Promoted by Johannes Brahms in particular, Dvořák’s compositions were hailed in Prague and Vienna. By 1882, his works had captivated London, and a series of concerts with the Royal Symphony followed.
As Dvorak's fame spread, Boston caught the fever. The Cecilia, as it was then called, was accustomed to a steady fare of German and English compositions and programmed his new works beginning with his Stabat Mater (American premiere) in its eighth season, in 1884. This was repeated in 1885 and followed in 1886 by The Spectre's Bride. Audiences and critics were mostly enthusiastic, and these pieces and Dvořák's Patriotic Hymn saw a total of nine performances through 1891.
In 1892, Dvorak secured a sponsored chair at New York's National Conservatory of Music. Most biographies note that his princely salary of $15,000 was half again as much as that of the mayor of New York. Dvořák had come to the United States, he said, to learn about the roots of genuinely American music. His inquiries would lead him to African-American sources, including the spiritual which supposedly inspired the "Goin' Home" theme in his New World Symphony. He also spent a summer composing in a Czech immigrant community in Iowa.
In November of 1892, he came to Boston to conduct Cecilia in the Boston premiere of his Requiem. Margaret Ruthven Lang, daughter of founder and music director B. J. Lang, chronicled these first 30 years and reported on the visit. Cecilia was at that time a subscription organization, with no tickets sold separately. However, its habit was to perform a Monday evening Wage Earner's Concert before each Wednesday concert.
When Dvořák was told of this, he wrote in a letter, "December 1 will be for the wealthy and intelligenzia, but the preceding day my work will also be performed for poor workers who earn $18 per week, the purpose being to give the poor and uneducated the musical works of all times and nations. That's something, isn't it? I am looking forward to it like a child."
The performance was evidently not problem-free. While reviewers called Dvořák "simple, modest, a man of great talent," he was also "almost entirely lacking in personal magnetism, [with] little force to control either singers or musicians." Another wrote, "Now and again there was false intonation, but if a composer insists on writing ear-baffling and voice-trying intervals, he must take the consequences." One defender seized on a colleague's term of "barbarous" as "Boston slang for 'Slavic' or 'not German.'" Evidently, reviewing was as much a performance art as was music-making.
Over the next four years, Cecilia performed Dvořák pieces (including his Eia Mater) just twice. The Dvořák craze had subsided. But with time Bostonians' ears were less baffled and voices less tried by the intervals Dvorak composed. Today it is hard to imagine his Mass in D Major as perplexing. Modern voices and ears will perceive the music in Cecilia's October 19th performance with a modern sensibility, to hear its beauty, as originally written for organ, choir, and solo voices.