Dvořák and America: Hiawatha Melodrama/American Suite; Farwell: Navajo War Dance, Pawnee Horses - PostClassical Ensemble/Angel Gil-Ordonez, Kevin Deas-narrator and Bass/baritone; Benjamin Pasternack, piano (Naxos 8.559777)
"Well, it's my debut as a composer that has to be pretty memorable," Joseph Horowitz says. "I never dreamt that I would compose something that would be performed and recorded."
Horowitz is a cultural historian who has written books exploring the history of classical music in the United States. For decades, he's produced themed concerts and festivals. He was executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in the 1990s. Now he has a chamber orchestra in Washington, D.C., called PostClassical Ensemble, which premiered and recently recorded "Hiawatha Melodrama." It's a piece Horowitz created using works Antonin Dvořák composed while living in America in the 19th century.
"I came to this idea half-seriously," Horowitz recalls. "I had the notion that since Dvořák never succeeded in doing his Hiawatha Cantata, that there was enough pertinent music by Dvořák to create a Hiawatha Melodrama. I put it together years ago and never thought twice about it."
Then, PostClassical Ensemble decided to do a Dvořák festival, and Horowitz did give this melodrama a second thought. "I took this thing out of a drawer, which was a sketch of a 35-minute melodrama and thought, 'What the hell. Let's do it.' "
This concoction, as Horowitz puts it, is the creation of his and of Michael Beckerman, a famous Dvořák scholar who teaches at New York University. It began several years ago as a nine-minute visual presentation that included the texts from the poem that inspired Dvořák, "Song of Hiawatha," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. "And the Melodrama is kind of a sequel to that," Horowitz explains, "another means of bringing to life this symbiosis between 'Song of Hiawatha' and the 'New World' Symphony."
The "Hiawatha Melodrama" is a six-movement story with music and spoken text. The narrator is bass-baritone Kevin Deas. "I started with the most obvious alignment," Horowitz clarifies. "The opening of the Scherzo of the 'New World' Symphony is incontrovertibly inspired by the dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis at Hiawatha's wedding. You can hear that it's an Indian dance. After that it has a tom-tom beat and it whirls and spins, which is exactly what the dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis does, as described by Longfellow. What Beckerman has actually shown is that the entire Scherzo movement is actually a miniature tone poem in three parts corresponding to the three parts of Hiawatha's wedding feast as described by Longfellow the dance, the song, the story."
Dvořák was fascinated with Longfellow's poem long before coming to America. That's one reason Dvořák had to see Minnehaha Falls when he visited Minneapolis. He was so moved by the experience, right there on the spot, he jotted down a tune, on his shirt sleeve, which made its way into the larghetto of his Sonatina, another work that Horowitz references in this melodrama. "So using that Sonatina I created a first movement called 'Minnehaha's Wooing,' and it's the story of Hiawatha traveling to the land of the Dakotas, falling in love with Minnehaha and then taking her home. And then the third movement, may be my favorite, it's the death of Minnehaha in winter, in the Largo of the 'New World' Symphony, an especially poignant passage in C-sharp minor with pizzicato double basses which Beckerman has shown was inspired by the death of Minnehaha during a famine. And so I correlated the text and the music for that...but I also used another beautiful Indianist theme, also in C-sharp minor, by Dvořák, which comes from the third movement of the American Suite."
While Dvořák was in America, he challenged American composers to create an American concert idiom that Americans will recognize as their own, using Native American and African American sources. Arthur Farwell wanted to be the first to take up Dvořák's challenge.
"Farwell is more doing what Bartók was trying to do at the same moment in Hungary, which was to capture something as astringent and raw as the indigenous culture in music itself," Horowitz explains. "So that's what you hear when you hear on this CD: the 'Navajo War Dance No. 2,' which is dissonant and complex and hard to play … that's remarkably advanced for its year of composition, which was 1904. Then 'Pawnee Horses' from 1905 and then the world premiere recording of an American choral masterpiece, Farwell's eight-part a cappella version of 'Pawnee Horses,' which is sung in Navajo."
Dvořák and America is a new recording that tells Dvořák's story while he was in America: what he experienced, how he impacted Americans and their composers, and how he processed his experiences into music. "What Beckerman and I believe is not universally believed," Horowitz concludes. "We believe that Dvořák became an American composer, that this was not a superficial stylistic acquisition. It wasn't like Mendelssohn composing an Italian Symphony. Those are pieces that still sound like Mendelssohn or Rimsky-Korsakov with an overlay of Italian tunes, whereas Dvořák fundamentally changed his style. When I lecture on this topic, I'll sit down at the piano and play the opening movement of the F major Humoresque or the opening of the third movement of the American Suite and ask people to guess the composer. No one ever guesses Dvořák. Almost always the guesses are George Gershwin or Scott Joplin. So this proves indisputably that this music sounds American. It doesn't sound like Dvořák playing at being American it sounds like American music."