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Dvořák as I Knew Him

By John Spencer Camp
[Editorial Note.—Mr. Camp is a well-known composer, pupil of the great Czechoslovak Master.]
My relation to the famous composer, Antonin Dvořák, was that of a pupil in composition and orchestration. I had studied harmony, counterpoint and fugue with Dudley Buck, and thought that instruction from and association with a European musician of world-wide fame would broaden and quicken my musical nature. I have always been glad that I had the privilege of studying with Dvořák and knowing at close range a man of such eminence in the musical world.
It may be asked, "What in particular did you gain from Dvořák that you could not have obtained from some capable American composer?" And again, "Was he a good pedagogue—systematic and logical in his application of a well-thought-out method?" And once more, "What were some of his personal characteristics?" I will attempt to answer these questions briefly.
And first, in going to Dvořák, I felt that I was going to a supreme musical court of the highest jurisdiction, He was one of the leading composers of his time, and I felt that his criticisms and suggestions would be authoritative and final. I also hoped that my poor abilities might somehow take on something of the magic power which he wielded. Thus, while I might have done as well elsewhere, I doubt whether my whole nature would have responded so completely to anybody else in the United States.
Was he a good pedagogue; a logical, systematic teacher? No. He had no system. He was arbitrary, not always easy to understand owing to his limited command of English, and very exacting in the amount of work required from the student. On the other hand, he was tremendously in earnest, and artistically sincere to the core. He was also a great inspirational force. He made one feel that nothing but the very best would do, and that this "best" must be constantly bettered. "More beautiful harmonies," he would sometimes say, and again, "You make that too easy for yourself; give me something more worthy and better worked out." I cannot emphasize too strongly the quality of inspiration emanating from this gifted composer and stimulating every artistic aspiration, drawing out from the student the very best in him. There was no "compromising;" no allowing something to "get by." By precept and example he said to the pupil: "Follow the gleam."
Nor did he try to impose his own style of composition upon the students. He wished them to develop upon their own lines; to unfold their nature, their personality, and not to be imitators either of him or anyone else. As before mentioned, he was very insistent upon hard work. He seemed to take as a matter of course the destruction of the work of the previous week, and the reuniting of the same anew, perhaps again to be relegated to the scrap basket. I remember that one week I brought him ten to twelve pages of manuscript written for chorus with solo obbligato. After carefully looking it over he said: "I think you had better write this number for solo alone." This meant tearing up my work and writing something entirely new. But it was good for me. I did not get "stuck" on a particular way of doing something. I realized that my special way of doing something was not necessarily correct. I learned the value of the scrap basket—a most valuable lesson! Discipline was what I needed; not coddling. Here again he was uncompromising. No soft, flattering phrases designed to make the student overestimate himself. If a thing was bad, he plainly said: "Very bad!" He constantly sought to bring the student up to his own level as far as possible. Therefore when he did approve one felt that this approval meant something worth having. He was not a teacher for a beginner. Without previous training I should not have done much. Many times I was perplexed, but after reflection, based upon my knowledge and experience, I saw what he meant. Given a man who had been well grounded in harmony, etc., then Dvorak was indeed a great help and inspiration. Personally he was arbitrary and impulsive, but not fundamentally unjust.
One day at the Conservatory a certain talented pupil came with practically nothing prepared. I happened to be waiting and witnessed what followed. After upbraiding him for being lazy and shiftless, Dvořák opened the door and said: "Get out and never let me see you again." I sat in surprised silence. Dvořák then turned to me and said: "That man tries me sorely. He will not work. If only he had brought me six measures, showing me that he was trying to do something, I should not have felt so."
At another time a young violin student and his mother came to see Dvořák. The mother was very much excited because Dvořák, who conducted the conservatory orchestra, had in his abandon during a rehearsal, hit the boy's bow with his baton, breaking it. The irate mother bearded the Doctor in his den, demanding that he replace the bow as she did not have the money. Dvořák was much annoyed. The arbitrary method of dealing with music pupils in Germany did not seem to work here. Over there a man of his reputation would have squelched mother and son with a glare of the eye or a peremptory phrase. Here, however, it was different. Finally the matter was taken up, I believe, by the secretary and adjusted satisfactorily. Dvořák asked me what I thought about her demand for reparation. I had to say that in this country when anybody destroyed or injured another's property, it was the custom to make good the loss. This seemed new to him as applied to such small happenings as the above, but upon reflection he was inclined to approve.
While one might infer from the foregoing that Dvořák was sometimes inclined to be impulsive, severe and even unjust, yet, on the other hand, he was fundamentally sound and sweet. He was simple in his habits, rising and retiring early. He used to complain that the hours were so late here and that in order to meet and converse with musicians he had to sit up so late. His nature was devout and he was a sincere believer in religion. A good deal of his writing in the United States was done before breakfast, as he was very busy during the day. He lived simply, thought highly and worked hard.
My personal relations with him were always cordial. Only once did he begin to uncork the vials of his musical wrath. But as soon as I realized the cause, I was able to make a satisfactory explanation and at once the cork was amiably replaced. Anybody who worked hard and earnestly was sure of consideration, personal interest, and a very liberal amount of time. He was modest about his own compositions, even while he was conscious of their musical worth. When the New World Symphony was first rehearsed by Anton Seidl in Carnegie Hall, New York, Dvořák accepted cordially the suggestion of a change in the tempo of the largo, the suggestion being made by Seidl, and involving a slower tempo of the largo than the one indicated by Dvořák in the score. In regard to the originality of the themes in this symphony, there was then—and has been since—considerable difference of opinion. I asked him once whether these themes were taken from any particular source or were his own invention. He replied simply, "I think they are my own." There was also quite a difference in the way people pronounced his name. In reply to a personal inquiry he replied, Dvor-shàk—the accent on the last syllable, and the a slightly shorter than a in father.
My impressions of Dvořák, as I look back, is that of a sincere, unaffected, true-hearted, gifted musician and lovable man. It was a pity that at that time (1892-1897) the conditions did not favor the gathering about such a master of a larger number of the best musical talent in this country. But he did his best and gave fresh impetus to the music of America by precept and example.

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