Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! Tales of Dvorak in 1893 Iowa trace to new orchestra in Green Bay

Critic At Large

Weidner Philharmonic

Bust of “From the New World” composer Antonin Dvorak in Spillville, Iowa, where he may have put finishing touches to the famed work. (Warren Gerds)


Spillville, Iowa, normally has nothing to do with Green Bay, Wisconsin.

That will change Saturday, Sept. 28, in a remarkable way.

The Weidner Philharmonic will present its inaugural concert in Cofrin Family Hall of the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Info:

The event is revolving around one of the beloved works in classical music for Americans.

A visitor from abroad was so taken by what he saw and felt that he composed the symphony that soon became known by the title of “From the New World.”

The visitor was the esteemed Czech composer Antonin Dvorak.

It is believed that Dvorak put some final polish on “From the New World” while enjoying a summer with his family in Spillville.

Surrounded by farms, Spillville is in the upper northeast sector of Iowa. For more than a century, its population has been around about 360.

You can visit the sturdy brick house where Dvorak stayed and wrote.

A little museum on the second floor cherishes his months in Spillville in 1893.

Included is a heroic bust of Dvorak sent by the Czech government for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of his “sojourn to Spillville.”

Such recognition from afar is a source of pride for Spillville, as are astonishing wood carvings on the first floor by two brothers who give the place its name, Bily Clocks Museum.

In 1893, composer Antonin Dvorak rented rooms for he and his family on the second story of this building that today includes a museum devoted to him and remarkable clocks carved by the two Bily brothers. (Warren Gerds)

Saturday’s concert is titled “The New World Symphony for a New Symphony.”

Being brought in to conduct that work is Victor Yampolsky, who is best known in this region for his leadership at Peninsula Music Festival in Door County.

All will go quiet in the showcase concert hall during the beautiful, flowing and moving second movement of “From the New World.”

Under the song title of “Goin’ Home,” the movement is immediately recognizable from many recordings and movie uses, and even a photograph – an accordionist in Navy Band in tears as he plays the work at the funeral for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Personable glimpses of Dvorak’s time in Spillville are part of displays at Bily Clocks Museum, whose name is somewhat misleading.

Yes, there are clocks, but what is astonishing is what surrounds the clockworks – the guts of an assortment of clock and other mechanisms. As a hobby, brothers Frank and Joseph Bily designed and carved detailed works of art that sometimes reach six or seven feet tall. The carved art encloses the moving parts. Every piece has a theme: Transportation, American pioneers, the Bible’s apostles.

The brothers never sold any of their pieces that they made from 1913 to 1958. They donated their collection to the city of Spillville, which put them in the house where Dvorak lived. The combination creates an off-the-beaten path museum like no other. It’s one of those ya-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it places.

The Bily brothers knew of Dvorak and his place, not only in Spillville but the realm of masterful composers. They carved a piece in the shape of a large string instrument devoted to him noting his visit to Spillville.

Brothers Frank and Joseph Bily carved this clock in honor of composer Antonin Dvorak’s visit to Spillville, Iowa. (Warren Gerds)

It is unlikely that the name Spillville will come up during Saturday’s concert. The event has many facets.

A catered dinner is offered at 6 p.m. in Fort Howard Hall of the center.

Opening the program will be Aaron Copland’s uplifting “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Conducting is Michael Alexander, UWGB provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. Music is an important part of his resume. Alexander served as director of the School of Music at the University of Northern Colorado and interim director of the School of Music at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

As provost, Alexander oversees programming and leadership of the four academic colleges; the Weidner Center, the Division of Continuing Education and Community Engagement, the Cofrin Library and the Office of Admissions, and leads the branch campuses in Marinette, Manitowoc and Sheboygan.

Next on the program is Samuel Barber’s “Overture to ‘The School for Scandal’.” Conducting is Victor Yampolsky, director of orchestras at Northwestern University. For 34 years until his retirement in August, Yampolsky was music director and conductor of the Peninsula Music Festival Orchestra consisting of professional musicians from throughout the United States.

Next is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” featuring soprano Courtney Sherman of the UWGB music faculty singing no words but a vowel of her choosing. Conducting is Randy Meder of the UWGB music faculty.

Next is Arturo Marquez’s “Danzon No. 2,” a work inspired by Cuban dance. Conducting is Kevin Collins of the UWGB music faculty.

The UWGB music faculty serves as the core of the Weidner Philharmonic. Meder, chair of the program and associate professor, has said the orchestra will combine the talents of UWGB music faculty and accomplished orchestral musicians who live and work in the region, with the center’s showcase Cofrin Family Hall being the performance venue. A university press release earlier this year said, “The ensemble will serve to fill the musical and cultural void left in the community when the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra ceased operations in 2015.”

Closing the program is Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’.” Conducting is Yampolsky.

Displays at the Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville include colorful stories of Dvorak’s visit that humanize the great composer. Here are glimpses:

While working in New York City, Dvorak was enchanted by what he heard of the town from a colleague and decided to visit with his wife, six children, sister-in-law and a maid. “The teacher and the parish priest and everything is Czech and so I shall be among my own folks,” he wrote. “How grand it will be.”

The mother of the host was an early riser and was surprised near dawn one early June morning to see the Master, as he is called in the narrative, walking up and down in front of the school. She feared something bad happened. “Nothing happened – and yet a great deal,” Dvorak said. “Imagine, I was walking there in the wood along by the stream and after eight months I heard again the singing of birds! And here the birds are different from ours, they have much brighter colors and they sing differently, too.”

The narrative says back home Dvorak raised pigeons and frequently listened to birds and wrote down their songs. “In Spillville,” the narrative says, “the scarlet tanager particularly attracted his attention. Calling it some ‘damned red bird – red, only with black wings’ – he jotted down its insistent song and incorporated a variation into the string quartet he was composing.”

Dvorak rented the upstairs of a large house that belonged to a tinsmith.

During his strolls around town, the Master would stop at the home of an invalid woman and play her reed organ for her. The organ is on display in the museum.

Antonin Dvorak played this reed organ for its owner, an invalid woman he visited during his time in Spillville, Iowa, in the summer of 1893. (Warren Gerds)

Over the summer, Dvorak became part of the small community. He liked to play the Bohemian card game called “darde” at one of Spillville’s saloons. He played for a wedding on June 27. In August, he played for a funeral. On Sept. 8, he passed out cigars he had received from New York at a feast celebrating his 52nd birthday.

A neighbor woman who did laundry for the family later told of how hard it was to get Dvorak’s shirt cuffs clean because he often jotted down musical ideas on the starched cuffs as he wandered through the country.

Dvorak was heard playing violin late at night or in the woods.

Boys would go walking with the composer or take him fishing. A 13-year-old boy recalled an encounter with a skunk. The Dvorak kids raced home. Their father was a slow walker… “but this time he shifted from low to high when he got a whiff of the perfume… After the fourth day, Dvorak’s youngest daughter came over and said, ‘Mother says if you don’t stink any more, you can come over to our house.’ When I got there, Mr. Dvorak laughed his head off. I told him it was too bad the skunk didn’t baptize him instead of me. That made him laugh all the more.”

Dvorak attended 14 performances of a Native American “medicine show,” sitting in the front row. Music he heard made its way into the string quartet he wrote in Spillville.

The Dvorak family also ventured to Omaha, St. Paul and Chicago (for the World Columbian Exposition).

Dvorak wrote, “The three months here in Spillville will remain a happy memory the rest of our lives. Being among our own people… gave us great joy.”

The premiere of “From the New World” took place Dec. 16, 1893, in Carnegie Hall. The narrative says, “Dvorak described the premiere in a letter to the publisher Simrock: ‘The success of the symphony was tremendous; the papers write no composer has ever had such success. I was in a box; the hall was filled with the best New York audience, the people clapped so much I had to thank them from the box like a king!’”

The narrative says, “The slow movement with the ‘Goin’ Home’ theme attracted particular attention. Dvorak’s pupil William Arms Fischer attended a public rehearsal on December 15th, and wrote afterwards: ‘At the close of the Largo… so touched to the heart was the great audience that in the boxes women of fashion and all about the hall people sat with tears running down their cheeks. Neither before nor since have I seen a great audience so profoundly moved by absolute music’.”

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