Essays - Winter 2019

No Harmony in the Heartland

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Two small towns in northeast Iowa are caught up in the national struggle over immigration

By Tom Zoellner | December 3, 2018
Last summer's fireworks display in Spillville, heralded as the best in northeast Iowa; 125 years ago, Antonín Dvořák enjoyed a happy sojourn there. (Tom Zoellner)

In the summer of 1893, the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák took his wife and six children to the frontier town of Spillville, Iowa, for a three-month stay. This was not a random choice. Having arrived in America the year before, Dvořák had been living near Gramercy Park in New York City and working as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. Though he had managed to compose his Symphony No. 9, From the New World—a grand triumph at its New York Philharmonic premiere and to this day his most popular work—the babble and chaos of the city grated on his nerves.

The composer’s secretary, Josef Kovařik, who had accompanied him to America,  offered a suggestion: Why not take a vacation in Spillville, a prairie town populated almost exclusively by immigrant Czechs? This was where Kovařik’s father lived and worked as a schoolmaster. It was an idyllic place where Dvořák could speak Bohemian on the dirt streets, drink pilsner, play the card game darda with his countrymen, perhaps find some further inspiration for his music.

Upon his arrival there, Dvořák did all of that and more. He took early-morning walks along the Turkey River and found a stump of a white oak on which to sit and listen to songbirds. He played the organ in the loft of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church during morning Mass and strolled the brick sidewalks in the evening under kerosene lamps. People in town began to call him “the master.” He would later describe the summer as among the happiest of his life.

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