Dvorak Plays Chicago

In 1893 all eyes were on Chicago – the Columbia Exposition was happening in Hyde Park, demonstrating to the rest of the country and the world that Chicago is a first rate place.  Guests to the fair rode the first Ferris wheel and many saw their first electrically lit-up spectacles – there were lights all over the place.  A pond with personal electronic boats allowed people to paddle around an area treated by the world’s first real landscape architect.  Change, beauty, an epic scale, and a spirit of adventure ran thick.

Enter Antonin Dvorak, Czech composer of such renown that he was enticed to move to New York in 1892 by the promise of a $15,000 per year salary.  Brahms, probably the most respected authority on music in the world at the time, believed the man to be the most gifted of the era.  It was in New York that Dvorak wrote his Symphony for the New World as well as his Cello Concerto, likely the two works for which he’s best known.

When he moved to America Dvorak brought back a young Iowan with whom he’d been working in Europe – the young man became his secretary, and the composer and his wife spent the summer of 1893 with him and his family in Iowa.  During their travels, Dvorak came to Chicago and conducted a performance of his Eighth Symphony at the storied Columbia Exposition.

Dvorak was passionately interested in creating a music informed by a place’s native music – he famously transformed Bavarian and other source materials from Czech culture into his own music.  While in the United States, he worked extensively with African American and Native American musicians and believed their work to be the best hope for a truly American music.  How prescient he was!

But back to that world’s fair – it seems that every point I learn about the Columbia Exposition offers me another reason I really, really would have like to have been there.  Here’s a performance of that Eighth Symphony, the same piece Dvorak conducted in 1893 in Chicago – I found the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra playing it – hey, that’s not too far from Hyde Park, especially for an international like Dvorak.

This post was informed by Wikipedia and a years-ago reading of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.

Thanks for reading.


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