Time Machine

Time Machine: Dvorak's summer in Iowa

Spillville's hills were alive with sound of Czech composer's music

An Antonin Dvorak exhibit is upstairs at the Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville. The composer lived in the house with his family in the summer of 1893. This photo was taken in the 1940s. (Gazette archive photo)
An Antonin Dvorak exhibit is upstairs at the Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville. The composer lived in the house with his family in the summer of 1893. This photo was taken in the 1940s. (Gazette archive photo)

Bits of information about famous people were as popular in the 1890s as they are now.

An item about Antonin Dvorak appeared in papers nationwide — including The Gazette — in the summer of 1893 that read, “Dvorak, the musical composer, goes to bed every night at 8:30 and is up in the morning at 4:30. Thus his work is over by breakfast, and he has the rest of the day to devote to social and other pursuits.”

What it didn’t say was that the famous Czech composer had quietly moved into a house in Spillville in northeast Iowa with his wife, Anna, and their six children at the beginning of June.

A notice appeared in the Decorah Republican later that month: “It will be a matter of much interest and surprise to learn that one of the most eminent men of the musical world is spending a three months’ vacation near Decorah.

“Dr. (Antonin) Dvorak of the National Conservatory of Music, New York, and late of Prague, Bohemia, has rented a house in Spillville and has brought his family there to reside for the summer.

“Dr. Dvorak is one perhaps of a half dozen composers of music now living who have earned the right to be and are considered at the head of all that is thoroughly high class and artistic.”

Dvorak had accepted a position as director of the New York conservatory in September 1892. After more than eight months, during which he composed his Fifth Symphony in E minor, “From the New World,” he needed a vacation.


Nationwide notices appeared that Dvorak and his family would summer “in the Northwest.” But at the invitation of Dvorak’s student and friend, Joseph Kovarik, they went only as far west as Kovarik’s hometown of Spillville.


The quiet little Winneshiek County village of Czech immigrants, nestled in the hills near the Turkey River, was reminiscent of the composer’s native land.

Dvorak, then 51, spent his mornings playing the organ during Mass at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, wandered the countryside and commuted to Chicago in June and August for the World’s Columbian Exposition, a World’s Fair celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492.

Both times, Dvorak led the 114-piece World’s Fair Orchestra at the Festival Hall in concerts of his own compositions.

For the Aug. 12 visit, designated the Bohemian and Independent Order of Foresters Day at the fair, a large delegation from Cedar Rapids’ Sokol gymnastics association was in attendance.


The summer was productive for Dvorak. He rounded up his friend Joseph on cello, Joseph’s father, John Kovarik, on second violin, and his daughter, Cecilia, on the viola to play along with his own first violin so he could see how a couple of his new compositions sounded.

His Quartet in F major, Op. 96, also known as his “American Quartet,” and his String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97 (scored for an additional viola) most likely were heard in Spillville.

It is believed he refined his “New World Symphony” on the organ at St. Wenceslaus.

Dvorak's String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 "American"Dvorak's String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97

The Dvorak family returned to New York in the fall.


The next year, in 1894, Dvorak’s new chamber pieces composed in Iowa were performed before a large audience in New York City.

The New York Times reviewer said, “Both compositions are as fresh and melodious in subject matter, as clear in form, as spontaneous in development, and as flexible in part writing as the best works of the two earliest quartet writers. ... They are pure, sweet, wholesome, and from the first to the last, all through and through, beautiful. In them Dr. Dvorak has once again proclaimed his belief in the possibility of imparting the American character to music.”


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His position as director at the National Conservatory of Music lasted for three years, when he and his family returned to Prague.

Dvorak was 62 when he died suddenly on May 8, 1904.


On the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1941, Spillville hosted a tribute to Dvorak that included a concert of the composer’s work by St. Paul’s Capitol City Symphony.

The conductor was Frank Kovarik, son of the late Joseph Kovarik, who had invited Dvorak to Iowa that summer. Spillville residents also began a movement to buy the house where the Dvorak family lived with the purpose of turning it into a museum.

Today, the building at 323 Main St. houses the Bily Clocks Museum on the first floor and an exhibit about Dvorak on the second floor.

Unfortunately, the square grand piano that Dvorak used that summer was sold in the 1930s and turned into a cabinet.

Dvorak’s brief time in Spillville led to a memorial, placed in the town’s Riverside Park. The park’s manager, G.F. Heuser, who was 26 in 1893, remembered Dvorak well.

“He was right at home here,” Heuser said in the 1941 interview. “He was an odd kind of man. Sometimes he’d be just as affable and glad to see you, and other times he’d pass you on the street and not even seem to see you. I guess that’s the way musicians are though, sometimes (they) just think about their music.”


Dvorak’s routine in Spillville included visits to the local tavern.


“He came in just like all the men in town to get a little tin pail of beer to take home in the evening,” Heuser said.

Dvorak once drolly asked for the beer’s foam to be on the bottom instead of the top.

One of the many misconceptions about Dvorak was that he wrote “Humoresque” while he was in Iowa. Even though the piece reminded residents of the rippling waters of the Little Turkey Creek, the piece was published after Dvorak left Spillville.

Heuser said visitors also often thought the composer had been born in Spillville, not believing he’d spent just one summer there.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com



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