Te Deum – Antonin Dvorak, Opus 103
“There is a tide in the affairs of men…,” says Brutus, and we recognize, without invoking superstition, that same convergence. Certainly the mid-nineteenth century was such a time for symphonic music; consider, for instance, two men born into provinces of the Hapsburg empire– Antonin Dvorak in 1841 in Bohemia, and Theodore Thomas– a name of special Chicago significance– six years earlier, and 400 miles to the northwest, in East Friesland, Prussia. The careers of these musicians were both to be impacted by a strong-willed Manhattan matron, Jeannette Meyer Thurber. For Mrs. Thurber, the wife of a multimillionaire wholesale grocer, Thomas was the showpiece for the European musical environment she had envied during her school years in France. Coming to New York as a ten-year-old violin prodigy in 1845, he soon organized a chamber concert series; by 1862 he had started a series of “symphonic soirees”, then a series of outdoor summer concerts, and from 1869 to 1877 he was touring America with his own orchestra. After he became conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1877, Mrs. Thurber funded his young people’s concerts in 1883, and his Wagner festival in 1884. The next step was her own conservatory, for which she hoped to get Federal funding: The National Conservatory of Music, as it was grandiosely titled, admitted all talented young people– including blacks and American Indians– and maintained a fee scale based on ability to pay. In 1889, the first director of the Conservatory resigned, and Mrs. Thurber searched for a replacement. Thus it was that Antonin Dvorak, who was then about to leave for a concert at Cambridge University, received a telegram on June 6, 1891 which was to change his musical life, and to link two cultures. After much agonizing, Dvorak accepted Mrs. Thurber’s offer and on September 27, 1892, landed in New York City with his wife, his two eldest children, and a young friend, Josef Jan Kavarik– born in Spillville, Iowa, of Bohemian immigrant parents. Kavarik served as secretary and translator, and it was through him that Dvorak arranged to spend a summer in Spillville; his lodgings there remain today as a museum, open to the public. Parenthetically, Theodore Thomas was in Chicago by this time, having taken the challenge, a year earlier, to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he directed it until his death in 1905. However, Thomas, who was an enthusiastic booster of the contemporary music of his time, was well aware of Dvorak: The CSO’s Archivist tells us that “… the Orchestra’s inaugural program concluded with Dvorak’s Husitska Overture. Under Thomas’s baton, the Orchestra also presented the American premieres of the Violin Concerto, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and The Wild Dove. Thomas also invited Dvorak to conduct the Orchestra during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.”
Mindful of the tide in the affairs of music, Mrs. Thurber planned the “coming-out party” for her new Director at a concert planned for October 12 (later postponed to October 21), 1892, to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first landing in the New World. She and Dvorak corresponded over his part of the program; she wanted to include a new “patriotic” composition, but the poetry she had selected did not reach Dvorak in time, and beginning in June, 1892, he composed instead a Te Deum. This was not an unreasoned choice (and had been suggested in their correspondence), since Te Deums had been used, historically, as Thanksgiving pieces and victory hymns. At the concert, Dvorak conducted three of his published overtures and then the new piece, which met a warm response from the audience and the critics. Thus, Dvorak’s American odyssey was begun, in fine style, on a favorable tide.
The Te Deum form is a Latin liturgical piece which developed from a chant; its roots may be as early as 350 A.D. It may have started as part of a Mass for the Easter Vigil. An English version has been used by the Anglican Church since the 1600’s; in the Roman church it is sung after, or instead of, a responsory at the end of Matins on feast days and Sundays. There is a melody, known from about 1100, but Dvorak did not utilize the traditional tune. Parts of his work nonetheless have a chant character which evokes the original mood. The text itself, which is partly scriptural (primarily from Psalms) has clearly undergone much modification; as used today it contains about thirty lines. The first ten are in praise of God, including a quotation from the Sanctus of the Mass; the next three are a doxology, which may have been added later; there follows a section in praise of, and praying to, Christ. In Dvorak’s work, the first two elements are combined, and the remainder is in three parts– Tu Rex Gloriae, Aeterna Fac, and Dignare, Domine– resulting in four movements, similar to symphonic construction. Dvorak is said to have been particularly moved by the text, Te ergo quaesumus, tuis famulis subveni, quos pretioso sanguine redimisti [Therefore, we pray you to aid your servants, whom by precious blood you redeemed], repeated by the chorus in the second movement in response to the soloist. Dvorak also added the “Benedicamus Patrem”, with its alleluias, to conclude the work– this text is not part of the traditional Te Deum, although in some liturgies a separate benedictory may be spoken or sung.
Many other composers have set the Te Deum text; the nineteenth-century list includes Verdi, Berlioz, and Bruckner. Bruckner’s Te Deum (1881), which the Chorus performed in 1986, is an expansive, operatic, almost bombastic setting, to which this version stands in fine counterpoint.
Dvorak completed his setting in July, 1892 some six weeks before he sailed for America. Although much has been made of the American features of other works Dvorak presented during his three-year sojourn here– especially the American Quartet (Opus 96) and the “New World” Symphony (no. 9, in today’s nomenclature)– this is quintessentially a Bohemian, i.e., Czech, work, unashamedly carrying with it the long and turbulent history of Europe and the Church.
This is the first performance by the Chorus of a work by Dvorak.
J. R. Fancher, Feb 2003