Suggested Listening: “The American Flag, Op. 102” by Antonín Dvořák

Since tomorrow is Flag Day, and since I’m spending the summer in America’s most patriotic city, and since this piece is far too fascinating not to share… this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC is Dvořák’s cantata The American Flag, Op. 102, performed below in two parts by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, RIAS Kammerchor, and Chor der St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale (DE), conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (US), with tenor Joseph Evans (US) and baritone Barry McDaniel (US).

About the Composer:

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was, arguably, the most significant musical figure in Czech history.  Skeptics may be familiar with melodies from his famous Ninth Symphony — its plaintive largo or Jaws-esque finale — or perhaps you’ve caught some of his cameos on TV and in film.  Mildly agoraphobic, a morning person (usually awake by five — “He often started composing as soon as he woke up; he would first tap out a musical idea on his quilt with his fingers,” his cousin wrote), passionate about trains (“I’d give all my symphonies if I could have invented the locomotive!” he once exclaimed), and unquestionably a genius, Dvořák perhaps had more in common with Sheldon Cooper than with his musical contemporaries.

My personal favorite Dvořák anecdote takes us back to 1901.  Austria-Hungary — a mere decade out from World War I and the empire’s consequent collapse — attempted to appease minority nationalities within its borders by appointing significant minority cultural figures to honorary parliamentary positions.  Dvořák received one such appointment, as a representative of the Czech minority — but his interest in government was pretty much nonexistent.  Following his swearing-in ceremony in Vienna, he swiped the bundles of pencils that had been provided for Parliament members and exclaimed to his wife, “Anna, look, these will come in useful when I’m composing!”

As you might expect,  Dvořák’s compositions have just as much personality and spunk as the man himself.  Enthralled by folk music, he incorporated traditional, nationalistic tunes from his homeland as well as abroad into many of his pieces.  Most famously, he spent several years in the United States, teaching at NYC’s National Conservatory beginning in 1892 and hoping to uncover what constituted “folk music” in the still-young nation.  In an 1895 piece contributed to Harper’s magazine, he described the state of the American folk tradition:

The music of the people is like a rare and lovely flower growing amidst encroaching weeds.  Thousands pass it, while others trample it under foot, and thus the chances are that it will perish before it is seen by the one discriminating spirit who will prize it above all else.  The fact that no one has as yet arisen to make the most of it does not prove that nothing is there.

Dvořák’s time in the United States infused his music with a unique energy — a Czech man’s take on the “American sound” — inspired by African-American spirituals, the embryonic stirrings of jazz, and the spirit of a national culture still emerging from Civil War and a century-long quest for independent identity.

About the Piece:

In fourteen-hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue… And 400 years later, in 1892, National Conservatory founder and president Jeannette Thurber — one of America’s first major classical music patrons — commissioned the conservatory’s newly appointed director, one Antonín Dvořák, to compose a piece celebrating the anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America.  This would be his first work premiered in New York, introducing the composer to the audiences of his new home.  Before he even set sail for the New World, Thurber sent Dvořák a copy of a poem entitled “The American Flag,” which he was to use as the text of this new piece.  Overseas mail was a tad slow in the 19th century, however, and by the time Dvořák received the poem, he had only six weeks to do anything with it.  So it was that The American Flag, Op. 102 was completed not in October, the month of Columbus’ discovery, but in January the following year.

This was Dvořák’s only work with English text, and he never did get to hear it performed; today, it is rarely played.  It is divided into four contiguous movements reflecting the stanzas of the poetic text:

  1. Lento maestoso (The Colors of the Flag)
  2. Allegro con fuoco (Apostrophe to the Eagle)
  3. Allegro giusto, tempo di marcia (Three Apostrophes to the Flag)
  4. Finale. Lento maestoso (Prophetic)

The poem at the core of the piece was written by Joseph Rodman Drake, a poet trained as a physician who, perhaps ironically, died of consumption at the age of twenty-five.  Edgar Allan Poe once accused Drake’s narrative poem “The Culprit Fay” of being “utterly destitute of any evidence of imagination whatever” — so Dvořák wasn’t exactly dealing with a literary genius.  Regardless, the composer found the patriotic text (below) to be rather moving, and embarked on a composition that depicted national pride and fervor.  Though scored for full orchestra with choir and vocal soloists, the winds and percussion are featured most prominently among the instruments — trumpet fanfares, snare drum rolls, and clarinet commentary creating a sonority reminiscent of the country’s popular military bands.  (For some perspective: John Philip Sousa was in his heyday; Stars and Stripes would be composed just four years after The American Flag.)  The result is a rather grand and ceremonial piece, vibrant and pompous, but with unexpectedly Romantic moments of beauty (English horn solo, anyone?) and interjections of self-aware humor.

Further reading: “When Dvorak Discovered America (With Help from Christopher Columbus)” by Fred Plotkin, WXQR

Text by Joseph Rodman Drake:

When Freedom, from her mountain height,
Unfurled her standard to the air,
She tore the azure robe of night,
And set the stars of glory there!
She mingled with its gorgeous dyes
The milky baldric of the skies,
And striped its pure celestial white
With streakings of the morning light,
Then, from his mansion in the sun,
She called her eagle-bearer down,
And gave into his mighty hand
The symbol of her chosen land!

Majestic monarch of the cloud!
Who rear’st aloft thy regal form,
To hear the tempest-tramping loud,
And see the lightning-lances driven,
When stride the warriors of the storm,
And rolls the thunder-drum of heaven!
Child of the sun! to thee ’tis given
To guard the banner of the free,
To hover in the sulphur smoke,
To ward away the battle stroke,
And bid its blendings shine afar,
Like rainbows on the cloud of war,
The harbingers of victory!

Flag of the brave! thy folds shall fly,
The sign of hope and triumph high!
When speaks the signal-trumpet tone,
And the long line comes gleaming on,
(Ere yet the life-blood, warm and wet,
Has dimmed the glist’ning bayonet),
Each soldier’s eye shall brightly turn
To where thy meteor-glories burn,
And, as his springing steps advance,
Catch war and vengeance from the glance!
And when the cannon-mouthings loud
Heave in wild wreaths the battle-shroud,
And gory sabres rise and fall,
Like shoots of flame on midnight’s pall!
There shall thy victor-glances glow,
And cowering foes shall shrink beneath,
Each gallant arm that strikes below,
The lovely messenger of death.

Flag of the seas! on ocean’s wave
Thy star shall glitter o’er the brave;
When Death, careering on the gale,
Sweeps darkly round the bellied sail,
And frighted waves rush wildly back
Before the broadside’s reeling rack,
The dying wanderer of the sea
Shall look, at once, to heaven and thee,
And smile, to see thy splendors fly,
In triumph, o’er his closing eye.

Flag of the free heart’s hope and home,
By angel hands to valor given!
Thy stars have lit the welkin dome,
And all thy hues were born in heaven!

[And fixed as yonder orb divine,
That saw thy bannered blaze unfurled,
Shall thy proud stars resplendent shine,
The guard and glory of the world.]

Forever float that standard sheet!
Where breathes the foe but falls before us?
With Freedom’s soil beneath our feet,
And Freedom’s banner streaming o’er us!

If you enjoyed The American Flag, you might also like…

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