"Our Country!
In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right;
but right or wrong, our country!"

    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dvořák in America

Today is the 170th anniversary of the birth of composer Antonin Dvořák. Celebrations are planned across his native Czech Republic and at the Czech Embassy here in Washington, D.C. throughout this month, but the composer should also be celebrated by all Americans as a personification of America’s greatest ideals and a celebration of American exceptionalism.

For three years, the great composer lived in New York as the directory of the National Conservatory of Music. During that time, he composed a prolific body of works that borrow significantly from American folk-musical traditions. Inspired by Longfellow’s epic Song of Hiawatha, Negro spirituals, and Native American culture, Dvořák created one of the most beloved symphonies of all time—his Symphony Number 9: “From the New World,” as well as several other of his most famous works.

In his brief time in America, Dvořák was immersed in the melting-pot of turn-of-the-century New York. During the 1890’s, almost 10 million people immigrated to the United States from every corner of the globe. In that decade, more than 5,000 people were born during the crossing itself. Different cultures were colliding and mixing in unprecedented ways that have come to define America today.

More than just the good food and music that we most often think of today, the millions of people that arrived on our shores brought different languages, different religions, and different histories. Since then, the multitude of different cultures and beliefs, hopes and fears, villains and heroes have all merged into the great story of America itself. We often take it for granted that so many things that we consider “American” today were actually brought here from other shores.

Baseball is as American as apple pie, but baseball is derived from a British game and apples came eastern Turkey. Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll are American art forms, but both are derived from the musical traditions of Africans who were transported here against their will. In our language, our history, our culture, and everything that makes us American, we are truly a nation of immigrants.

As we approach another anniversary—the 10th anniversary of September 11th—it is worth considering that in the World Trade Center, the terrorists indiscriminately attacked people from more than 90 countries and from every continent. It was not just an attack on America, but rather it was an attack on what it means to be an American.

Just as in Dvořák’s time, people came together in New York in search of the American ideals of liberty, equality, and justice. We owe it to the memory of the victims of that dark day and to all who risked everything to start a new life here in the "New World" to continue to strive for those ideals, and pray that all people in the world will someday come to know the particular blessings and prosperity we enjoy as Americans.