Program Notes

The American Flag, Opus 102

BORN: September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, Bohemia (now Czech Republic)
DIED: May 1, 1904, in Prague, Bohemia

COMPOSED: He composed his cantata The American Flag, to a poem by Joseph Rodman Drake, from August 3, 1892, through January 8, 1893

WORLD PREMIERE: May 4, 1895. Contralto Mary Louise Clary, tenor Ben Davies, and bass George W. Fergusson, with Frank G. Dossert and the New-York Musical Society, in New York City


INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, and strings, plus a mixed chorus and 3 vocal soloists (contralto, tenor, and bass, with the contralto part optionally sung by up to 4 choristers)

DURATION: About 21 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Antonín Dvořák rode the tide of musical nationalism that surged through the second half of the ninteenth century, and in posterity he remains revered for absorbing the sound and spirit of the Czech Lands into enduring concert-hall masterpieces. But for three years, he left his beloved Bohemia to live in the United States, a country that also made a mark on a handful of his compositions. Among those works, his cantata The American Flag is the most overt in expressing patriotic fervor. 

In June 1891, the American philanthropist Jeannette Thurber approached him about directing the National Conservatory of Music in New York, an establishment she had been nurturing into existence over the preceding several years. Thurber had studied music in Paris, and when she returned to the United States she set about creating an American conservatory in the French image—which is to say, one in which talented students of all backgrounds would be educated at the government’s expense, regardless of sex, race, or economic background. She managed to get the organization chartered through an act of Congress in 1891, by which time she had already enlisted an impressive roster of musicians as faculty. Securing a composer of Dvořák’s eminence to lead the school would be a phenomenal coup, but it required persuasion. Thurber, however, was not someone who easily accepted “no” for an answer.              

On September 26, 1892, Dvořák and part of his family arrived in New York, four of six children remaining behind in Bohemia. He remained until 1895 (spending the summer of 1893 in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, and the following summer in Prague), building the National Conservatory’s curriculum and faculty, appearing as a guest conductor, and composing such masterworks as his String Quartet in F major (Opus 96, the American) and his Symphony From the New World. The National Conservatory continued to flourish for two decades following his time there, but by 1915 its reputation was waning. It moved from one address to another for a further decade, disappearing from the scene in 1928.               

Celebrations would be mounted in October 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of what used to be called “Columbus’ discovery of America.” It occurred to Mrs. Thurber that a festive piece by her incoming director would be a worthy way to introduce him to the New York public and proclaim his admiration for the United States. On July 10, 1892, she wrote to him about arrangements for his upcoming ocean crossing and added: “As for the Columbus cantata—I do hope that you will find it convenient to write something for the 12th October. ‘The American Flag’ . . . would be most appropriate.” “I can tell you that I like the poem very much,” he responded. “It is really a grand poem—and your selection for a patriotic hymn—‘Columbus Cantata’—is very well fitted for music. But what a pity it is that you did not send the words a month earlier. It is quite impossible to get ready a work which will take a half an hour in performance in time for October, and so I was compelled to write a ‘Te Deum.’ I shall, however, go on with the work from which every musician must derive inspiration.”           

Dvořák had already begun the piece by the time he disembarked in America on September 27, and he finished it just a week into the new year of 1893, as he was beginning his Symphony From the New World. The Columbus festivities were receding into distant memory and there was no compelling need to have the cantata performed immediately. Its jingoistic flavor rendered it unmarketable abroad. Neither of Dvořák’s usual publishers—Simrock in Berlin and Novello, Ewer & Co. in London—could find a place for it in their catalogues, and it was issued instead by the American firm of G. Schirmer. The work was finally premiered on May 5, 1895, on the inaugural concert of the New-York Musical Society. The event was beset by difficulties (“Of course, it was too hot for a serious musical entertainment,” reported the New York Times), and the contralto soloist, Mary Louise Clary, arrived so late that a member of the chorus had to take her place in the opening number (Mendelssohn’s The First Walpurgis Night), “suffering from extreme nervousness.” Numerous other works ensued before the pièce de résistance, The American Flag, brought the concert to an end.  

Dvořák had moved back to Bohemia in April, arriving in Prague a week before the cantata was given in New York. He never heard it performed, and its European premiere did not take place until 1931, in Prague. 

The poem, by Joseph Rodman Drake, appeared in 1815. He was a member of the Knickerbocker Group, a literary circle that included Fitz-Greene Halleck, Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryan. “The American Flag” exemplifies the grandiloquent poetic diction they preferred. Imagine Dvořák at his desk in Prague, scratching his head over lines like “The milky baldric of the skies” (Baldric: “a belt, usually of ornamented leather, worn across the chest to support a sword or bugle,” says the American Heritage Dictionary) or “Thy stars have lit the welkin dome” (Welkin: “the vault of heaven; the sky”).

THE MUSIC  After a solemn but tangy orchestral introduction, the ode gets rolling with “Colors of Flag,” in which Freedom summons her eagle to carry earthward the banner she has designed, “the symbol of her chosen land.” The score assigns the opening quatrains to the contralto soloist though allowing that her lines may instead be rendered by four voices. The choral response shows Wagnerian flavor. The eagle’s flight is borne on energetic trumpet tattoos.

An orchestral transition leads to the “Apostrophe to the Eagle” (Apostrophe: “the direct address of an absent or imaginary person or a personified abstraction”), in which the noble bird is addressed by the bass soloist, at first accompanied by the harp, in bardic fashion. A storm breaks out—in the poem and in the orchestra—and of course “the thunder-drum of heaven” draws generously from the percussion section.

More fanfares launch the three “Apostrophes to the Flag.” Each alludes to a different branch of the military, whose warriors are inevitably consoled by glimpsing the flag as they expire. The first begins with an orchestral section that may remind listeners fleetingly of the Rákóczy March and, surprisingly, of a Czech polka; and then the tenor soloist enters bravely, on a high A, to extol the Foot-Soldier. The second apostrophe (bass solo) exalts the Cavalryman, and the third the drowning Sailor (where scurrying strings suggest the “frighted waves”). The chorus participates in all of these, as well as in the Finale (again with the bass soloist). A hymn-like melody begins this concluding expanse, played very softly (pianississimo), again with shades of Tannhäuser. The texture grows with the addition of the bass singer and the full chorus, which ends up extolling the flag, “the guard and glory of the world,” in six-part harmony, fortissississimo—which is about as loud as can be.

James M. Keller

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus, Saint Hedwig's Cathedral Choir with tenor Joseph Evans and baritone Barry McDaniel (Sony) 

Reading: Dvořák, by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler (Marion Boyars)  |  Dvořák and his World, edited by Michael Beckerman (Princeton)  |  Dvořák in America 1892-1895, edited by John C. Tibbetts (Amadeus)  |  New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life, edited by Michael Beckerman (Norton) 

(November 2017)

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