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Richard Eder

DVORAK IN LOVE by Josef Skvorecky (Knopf: $18.95; 323 pp.)

February 15, 1987|Richard Eder

Josef Skvorecky, a Czechoslovak novelist, has written his own Symphony From the New World.

"Dvorak in Love" is untidy, sentimental and sometimes daring. Like Dvorak's most celebrated work, it is anecdotal and uses borrowed themes to proclaim a European wish-to-believe in the vitality and boundlessness of the society taking shape across the Atlantic.

Skvorecky, who left his country after 1968, has a more up-to-date vision of America. It was expressed in "The Engineer of Human Souls" where, among other things, the experience of contemporary exile is wryly and ingeniously set out.

"Dvorak in Love" is quite different. It is a kind of romantic splurge into the past, an effort to imagine his countryman's years in an America that was coming out of the Gilded Age and buying up culture with part of the proceeds. Vanderbilt constructed Newport mansions, and Carnegie built libraries. Others built symphony orchestras--like the railroads, on the backs of immigrant labor.

The immigrants were European musicians, many of them German or Austrian or, as with Anton Dvorak, non-German subjects of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. An American patron, Jeannette Thurber--who used part of her husband's fortune to try to establish an American opera company that would sing in English--turned her efforts to setting up a musical conservatory, and brought Dvorak over to direct it.

Dvorak's two years at the conservatory in New York, along with a summer spent in a Bohemian-American town in Iowa, are the factual framework for "Dvorak in Love." Along with it, Skvorecky, has told or retold in fascinating detail something of the life of the European musicians on their wanderings around America, as well as that of the pre-jazz black musicians in whose work Dvorak took a profound interest.

A historical novel can have the same relationship to a novel, plain and simple, that hopscotch has to hopping. The leaps are predetermined; they have to come down on chalk-line squares.

Skvorecky, at his best, pretty much avoids the constrictions of the "Have another cigar, Mr. Dvorak" type. If anything, his book owes something to "Ragtime"; where myth serves to bridge the gap between free fictional character and bound historical character.

"Dvorak in Love" is a panorama by fragments. Each section is narrated by a different voice, sometimes a recurring one. Time is fragmented, too. The scenes range from Dvorak's earlier years to several decades after his death, and frequently--sometimes excessively--an italicized passage will create a further interruption.

The voices are drawn from a wide circle of Dvorak's friends, his students, his family, his colleagues, his proteges and his American patrons. Sometimes the perspective bursts with wit and energy. There is a splendid monologue by Theodore Thomas, the blunt, unstoppable German who helped drill the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony into shape. In between, he barnstormed around the country introducing farmers, small-town shopkeepers and frontiersmen to the pleasures of symphonic music.

Skvorecky's irrepressible gift for character makes this colorful figure even more fascinating than he was, perhaps. He does even better with a dissolute and anonymous tuba player who recalls the old glory days--Dvorak wrote a part specially for him--while propping up a musician's bar in turn-of-the-century New York.

Dvorak himself, a bearlike enthusiast, innocent, absorbed in his passions for music and food, and greedily soaking up the folk-motifs of America, is vividly portrayed. We see him rushing out of restaurants when he hears a German band pass by and fastening upon the black janitor at the conservatory when he hears him singing spirituals. The patronage he arranged around the janitor--Harry Burleigh--helped him become recognized as one of the great American singers.

There is a strong and subtle portrait of another black musician, Will Marion Cook, a student of the violin master Joachim. Cook's adaptation and performance of spiritual themes in a classical setting--partly under Dvorak's inspiration--was eclipsed by more vital currents represented variously by jazz, blues, gospel and George Gershwin.

Dvorak's predilection for folk themes, arranged in symphonic style, won success for him, but it was a dead end. Skvorecky hints, with grace and sharpness, at the blighting effect it may have had on some of the black musicians that Dvorak championed. The portraits of Burleigh and Cook are the best and most penetrating things in the book.

Quite a bit of it falls apart though. If some of Skvorecky's voices are stimulating, many of them are not. His characterization of Dvorak's wife, her sister--whom the composer originally loved--and the daughter courted by both his secretaries, lack energy and distinctiveness. The author's depiction of the Czech-American community in Iowa is folksy and bland; and his ear for rural American speech, though admirable, drains his fictional energies by being just that.

In short, "Dvorak in Love" is an endearing and sometimes provocative patchwork. Too many of the patches consist of lush but facile bits of color. Something like Dvorak's music, in other words.

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