Wednesday, May 23, 2018

American Enthusiasm, 1895

When Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1900) came to America, he taught students and he wrote music. He wrote The New World Symphony based on the inspiration he received here.

In 1895 he wrote an essay for Harpers magazine characterizing the music and the people of the young nation. He said: "The two American traits which most impress the foreign observer, I find, are the unbounded patriotism and capacity for enthusiasm of most Americans."

"Nothing better pleases the average American, especially the American youth, than to be able to say that this or that building, this or that new patent appliance, is the finest or grandest in the world."

"This, of course, is due to that other trait - enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of most Americans for all things new is apparently without limit. It is the essence of what is called "push" - American push."

"Every day I meet with this quality in my pupils. They are unwilling to stop at anything. In the matters relating to their art they are inquisitive to a degree that they want to go to the bottom of all things at once."

He wrote this essay during the 1890s, the decade of bicycles. Electricity and the telegraph were newly invented, and comics, animation, jazz, movies, automobiles and airplanes were soon to arrive. The enthusiasm and inquisitiveness he described were at the root of an incredible era of invention and discovery.

But, let's remember, many of those inventions were followed by less desirable outcomes that no one could have predicted, such as suburbia and the world wars. And we can't forget that women didn't have the vote, and racial and ethnic minorities didn't have equal opportunities.

Perhaps Dvořák would have been pleased to see his symphony performed by such a diverse orchestra (this was the first performance that came up on a Google search).

But I wonder what Dvořák would make of the zeitgeist of our arts culture now? Have we lost some of that enthusiasm and confidence? Have we become jaded, cautious, and cynical?

Antonin Dvorak's essay "Music in America"