The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

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The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

Post  pinhedz on Tue Apr 12, 2011 12:33 pm

So, we were talking about "The Song of Hiawatha" over in the photos area (that was on the old site), and that started me thinking about Antonin Dvorak's Hiawatha opera project--he thought the story of the noble Indian brave Hiawatha and the beautiful Indian maiden Minnehaha would be a good subject for an opera.

Dvorak was director of a music conservatory in New York city in the early 1890s, but by 1893 he wanted out of New York, so he went to Spillville Iowa, population 350--all Bohemians except for 1 German and 1 Norwegian.

The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company had a traveling show to sell the medicine that's good for whatever ails you. It will get your tummy started, and it will guarantee you get a good night's sleep:



The Kickapoo show came through Spillville, with (according to an eyewitness) "two negroes who could really sing 'old-time' songs and three Indians named Big Moon, John Deer, and John Fox." So Dvorak always sat in the front row to soak up both the negro songs and the Indian dance music.

"The Song of Hiawatha" had been translated into Czech, and Dvorak wanted to turn it into an opera. He visited Minnehaha Falls--not that far away across the Minnesota border--and wrote a violin sonatina with a slow movement called "Indian lament" there. He also wrote "The American Quartet" with some barn dance music in it.

But the opera project fell through because Dvorak couldn't come up with a libretto. So, he turned the music he'd been working on into "The New World Symphony," parts of which depict scenes in "The Song of Hiawatha."

The Scherzo movement is a dance that Hiawatha does at his wedding. Here's the text (from "The Song of Hiawatha," a long poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) that goes with it:

"First he danced a solemn measure,
Very slow in step and gesture,
In and out among the pine-trees,
Through the shadows and the sunshine,
Treading softly like a panther.
Then more swiftly and still swifter,
Whirling, spinning round in circles,
Leaping o'er the guests assembled,
Eddying round and round the wigwam,
Till the leaves went whirling with him,
Till the dust and wind together
Swept in eddies round about him."

"Then along the sandy margin
Of the lake, the Big-Sea-Water,
On he sped with frenzied gestures,
Stamped upon the sand, and tossed it
Wildly in the air around him;
Till the wind became a whirlwind,
Till the sand was blown and sifted
Like great snowdrifts o'er the landscape,
Heaping all the shores with Sand Dunes,
Sand Hills of the Nagow Wudjoo!"

The slow movement depicts the burial of Minnehaha. Here's the text:

"Then they buried Minnehaha;
In the snow a grave they made her
In the forest deep and darksome
Underneath the moaning hemlocks;
Clothed her in her richest garments"
Wrapped her in her robes of ermine,
Covered her with snow, like ermine;
Thus they buried Minnehaha."

"And at night a fire was lighted,
On her grave four times was kindled,
For her soul upon its journey
To the Islands of the Blessed.
From his doorway Hiawatha
Saw it burning In the forest,
Lighting up the gloomy hemlocks;
From his sleepless bed uprising,
From the bed of Minnehaha,
Stood and watched it at the doorway,
That it might not be extinguished,
Might not leave her in the darkness."

"Farewell!" said he, "Minnehaha!
Farewell, O my Laughing Water!
All my heart is buried with you,
All my thoughts go onward with you!
Come not back again to labor,
Come not back again to suffer,
Where the Famine and the Fever
Wear the heart and waste the body.
Soon my task will be completed,
Soon your footsteps I shall follow
To the Islands of the Blessed,
To the Kingdom of Ponemah,
To the Land of the Hereafter!"



Dvorak was more of a farm boy than a society type, so he was not happy one bit in New York City. In Spillville Iowa, where he got away from it all for a summer, there's a museum dedicated to his stay there, and they've preserved the organ in the church where he used to play during mass.

My wife's grandmother--who's name is Dvorak--is from Spillville, but evidently no relation (it's a very common name in Czech communities).

btw--there's a British musical from the 1950s called "Summer Song" that is all about Dvorak's summer in Spillville, and the music is all Dvorak tunes.

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Re: The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

Post  pinhedz on Tue Apr 12, 2011 12:42 pm

I don't know if any music written for the ballet was used in the quartet, but I remember a radio commentator remarking that one movement from the quartet reminded him of "barn dance" music he remembered from his childhood in Iowa.

There was a second commentator, who disagreed (in a rather haughty British accent), saying that Dvorak never actually used American themes, all his themes were of European origin. The first commentator just said: "Well that's the way it sounded in the 1930s in Iowa."

After all, where else would "American" fiddle-music themes come from if not Europe?

According to legend, Dvorak wrote this tune on the cuff of his shirt while viewing the Minnehaha Falls, and he called it "Indian Lament:"


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Re: The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

Post  pinhedz on Sun Sep 04, 2011 2:04 am

The Czech embassy is sponsoring a 2-month Dvorak festival, which they are calling "Mutual Inspirations," because American tunes influences Dvorak, and Dvorak influenced American music.

Fun fact: Dvorak was Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York from 1892 to 1895, and a fourth of the 600 students were black.

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Re: The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

Post  pinhedz on Tue Sep 06, 2011 9:12 am

Dvorak's assistant at the conservatory was a black man named Harry T. Burleigh, composed this song, based on a tune by Dvorak (I don't think it was intended to encourage smoking):


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Re: The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

Post  pinhedz on Tue Sep 06, 2011 9:15 am

Dvorak also inspired Burleigh to write "Deep River:"


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Re: The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

Post  pinhedz on Tue Sep 06, 2011 9:53 am


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Re: The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

Post  pinhedz on Tue Sep 13, 2011 3:19 am

pinhedz wrote:According to legend, Dvorak wrote this tune on the cuff of his shirt while viewing the Minnehaha Falls, and he called it "Indian Lament:"

Here's a pic of Minnehaha Falls late in the year--around the same season when Dvorak visited.

It's uncommon to see that much water there so late in the year--it was probably more like a dribble when Dvorak saw it:


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Re: The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

Post  pinhedz on Wed Aug 05, 2015 4:47 am

Just so you'll know, these videos are illegal. bounce

The Chief of Police (Chief Red Cloud) says: "Don't do this!" Mad




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Re: The Kickapoo Medicine show and the New World Symphony

Post  Yakima Canutt on Sat Sep 12, 2015 9:18 pm




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