Writing about the Arts: “Boots on the Ground” in Spillville, IA

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What does research look like? Can everything be found in a library or online? What can we gain from experiencing a place that is otherwise fully-documented in books and articles?

In 1893, Antonín Dvořák spent a summer in Spillville, Iowa. While there, the composer wrote several pieces that helped establish an “American” voice in an otherwise Eurocentric classical music scene. This October, Dvořák– rather, his music– returns to Iowa. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will present his String Quintette no. 3 at Hancher Auditorium. It’s my job to write program notes for this piece; that is, it’s my job to help our audience engage with this work in a new way.

There’s plenty of information about the String Quintette and Dvořák’s time in the U.S. There are anecdotes of his travels, transcriptions of his letters sent home to the Czech Republic, and dim descriptions of how hearing birds and going for morning walks helped inspire the composer to write some of his most iconic works. But Spillville isn’t far from the University of Iowa; it’s a mere 126 mile trek north, to touch the rocks that Dvořák sat on, to walk those same streets, to hear that same dawn chorus. Off to Spillville I went.

Journey to “The New World”

I leave my home in Coralville at 5am, partially to beat some of the I-380 traffic, and partially so I can experience a bit of Dvořák’s morning routine. The trip is mostly county roads: rolling hills, foggy dips, brown cows strolling the edges of forests. Now and then I pass through a blip of a small town, the kind where people wave to each passing car. I drive with my windows down and breathe deeply of the cool summer air.

Spillville sits at the bottom of a small hill. The main street is quiet and quaint, dotted with old brick buildings and a faux-blacksmith. There’s a gazebo at the center of a roundabout, built to honor the men this town sent to Japan, Europe, Vietnam, and Korea. At 8am a young man unlocks the front door of the bank, and a couple emerges from the general store with cups of coffee.

Dawn and Birdsong

Dvořák walked through town and the countryside every morning at daybreak, before manning the organ at 6am Mass. I wander the neighborhood on foot, stopping to record a sample of morning birds after the passing of a grain truck. The trees are thick, and the birds sit high and out-of-sight.

I walk up to Dvořák’s church, St. Wenceslaus, which sits at the highest point in town. The stone building is massive compared to any modern structures in the area. Headstones pepper the grounds, ornate structures of iron and stone that bear names like Kovarik, Matka, Silena, Novak. An ancient “Dvořák” hides under a layer of orange moss. These must be his cousins, or other distant relatives. They passed away three years after his visit.

Time and Place: The Quintette by the River

I drive to the Riverside Park, where residents built a memorial to Dvořák in 1925. Around the plaque, a stone worker inscribed the pieces that Dvořák wrote during his stay. I brought along a score from the Rita Benton Music Library. I place the score on the ground and listen to a recording. I feel as though I’ve returned a sacred artifact to it’s tomb. I walk along the banks of the Turkey River; the rapids lurch over smooth tree limbs as the violas arpeggiate in my headphones.

At 9am, the Dvořák and Bily Museum opens. Dvořák and his family lived upstairs, and residents passing by would stop to listen to his violin in the afternoon and would chat with him a bit during a cigar break. The downstairs now houses a collection of wooden clocks made by the Bily brothers (pronounced Bee-lee). These Spillville natives never traveled more than 20 miles from home, and they spent their winters and early spring carving gigantic world-class clocks.

I snap photos of the Dvořák artifacts upstairs: his violin, his pipe, his home organ, a letter to his son. Below, the choir of clocks tick away with a delightful counterpoint of gears and the occasional “cuck-ooh.” I begin to wonder how Dvořák and the Bily brothers seem like perfect companions in this homely space. Hearing the String Quintette is not unlike inspecting one of these clocks. The brothers ordered rich mahogany and oak from around the world. They researched the attire for indigenous subjects. They dove deeply into their bibles and their childhood stories to build vast dioramas of Jesus and the Apostles, or Shakespeares “Seven Ages of Man.” And they explored every detail, every bit of symmetry and natural form, and poured passion into each precise artifact. I begin to see Dvořák as a clock-maker, in his own way.

From the “New World” Back to the “Old World”

I could have quoted Dvořák’s letters, looked at some photos online, and paraphrased a history book for these program notes. I think my biggest takeaways from this trip were the non-historical connections between Dvořák and this town.

Scholarship doesn’t often risk discussing the purely human experience of a place. I wonder how much we risk missing by locking ourselves up on campus.

Spillville, IA Water Tower