By Ray Sawhill
From 1892 to 1895, the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak lived in New York. Lured here by the sponsor of the new National Conservatory of Music to help Americans develop a distinctive style of music, he worked, drank oceans of beer, and was wowed by the surreal scale of the country. What he discovered about our musical life came as a surprise: we already had a magnificent tradition. “In the Negro melodies of America I find all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote. “There is nothing in the whole range of composition which cannot be supplied from this source.”
Josef Skvorecky tells the story of this visit in his bighearted and wide-ranging novel “Dvorak in Love” (translated by Paul Wilson; Knopf), using it as an opportunity to explore American musical history and to suggest the mystery of Dvorak’s creative fire. He takes us from the 1840s, when a composer in search of the American essence entitled one of his orchestral works “Pocahontas, fantasia romanza,” to the mid-20th century, when jazz was finally performed at Carnegie Hall. And, though he never brings us inside Dvorak’s mind, he sketches a vivid, mobile portrait of an earthy man of the senses with a peasant’s simple religious faith, who also happens to be a genius. The “love” of the title is Dvorak’s private drama: his adoration of his wife’s older sister, an actress who died early and for whom Dvorak composed his most cherished melody. Skvorecky tenderly and humorously places this unrequited passion at the center of his novel; the effect is to draw a connection between ephemerality and love.
That’s what happens in “Dvorak in Love,” narratively and structurally. But this is a far from conventional novel. You don’t experience it primarily in terms of drama, character development, or finely tuned sentences. You experience it musically, as an unruly jazz suite on themes suggested by Dvorak’s visit: high art and folk art, the Old World and the New, music and words, exile. The chapters, told from a variety of points of view, many of which shift internally, are riffs — long, seemingly improvised passages that charge off in all directions. “To me, literature is blowing a horn,” Skvorecky has said. It’s clear that, for him, beauty, youth, emotion and music are close to synonymous, and that his writing is an effort to keep them alive, to prolong the music. His books, including the novels “Miss Silver’s Past” and “The Engineer of Human Souls,” are soulful, comic laments about what vanishes between youth and age, one language and another. In his best work — in passages here and in his earlier volume, “The Bass Saxophone” — his humor and lyricism work together in ways that make entire paragraphs seem to rise right off the page, borne away by nostalgia, bewilderment and love.
“Dvorak in Love” is sometimes halting and it has its tedious stretches. But the network of themes Skvorecky has devised is loose enough to let his riffs take off and sturdy enough to hold them together. His prose is robust — it has a smoky, gypsy flavor — yet the book has an airy theatricality. Skvorecky shines the poetic light of a “lunatic moon” on this factually based past, and he tells wild, true stories about early visionary naifs like Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who once led an orchestra of 2,000 and a chorus of 20,000, and who kept his huge ensemble in some rough kind of synch by firing off cannons.
Some of the solos in “Dvorak in Love” have the nakedness and lift of great spirituals. In one chapter, set in the 1940s, the woman patron of the arts who brought Dvorak to America is musing about Duke Ellington and the sound of saxophones, and she wonders how the long-dead Dvorak would have responded to swing. This old lady settles into sleep, and when she “awakens,” whom should she see but Dvorak himself. There he was, “sitting next to her bed in a waistcoat, with his sleeves rolled up, and he was playing the saxophone.”
- Buy a copy of “Dvorak in Love.”
- An interview with Josef Skvorecky.
- Robert Winter’s CD-ROM about Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony is a wonderful work in its own right. I can’t find anyplace that currently sells the disc, but you might be able to find a copy on eBay. Highly recommended.
© 1987 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.