Sunday, September 4, 2011

Dvorak and the Minnehaha Melody

Written by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
 and Angie Newgren

The first Monday in September is celebrated as Labor Day in the United States. This annual holiday which brings families together and marks the end of summer has been around since 1894.

The year before this holiday started, Saint Paul, Minnesota got a visit from a great composer. A special place in our state inspired Antonin Dvorak to create beautiful music that we still listen to over 100 years later. It's time to recognize Dvorak's composition and spend part of our holiday celebrating Dvorak's love of Minnehaha Falls.

Minnehaha Falls in Saint Paul, MN
On September 5, 1893 Antonin Dvorak came to Minnesota. Dvorak had traveled from Bohemia to the United States at the end of 1891. During the summer of 1893 Dvorak was living in Spillville, Iowa and had recently finished his ninth symphony, "Symphony in E Minor (From The New World)." He was looking for peace and quiet away from the press. He was also enamored with Minnehaha Falls from a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The famous poem, The Song of Hiawatha, had been translated into the Czech language a few years earlier. Dvorak traveled to St. Paul from Spillville, Iowa by train and then hired a carriage to take him across the river to Minneapolis and Minnehaha Falls. Dvorak described the area as being "so intensely beautiful that words cannot describe it."

Luckily for us, Dvorak's talent wasn't for words, it was for music. Dvorak said that he fell into a trance-like state staring at the shimmering water, and in his mind, heard the song of a Native American. Standing next to Dvorak was his assistant and translator, Josef Kovarik. Dvorak leaned over to Kovarik and said "quick, lend me paper and a pencil." Kovarik, having no paper, gave Dvorak a pencil only. Dvorak, on his shirt cuff, wrote down the melody that possessed his mind. The melody later was dubbed the "Minnehaha Melody" by Fritz Kriesler.

The "Minnehaha Melody" which was written on Dvorak's cuff

Over the next year,  Dvorak worked on many projects, one being his ninety-ninth composition. Wanting something distinctive, Dvorak remembered the theme written on his shirt cuff at Minnehaha Falls and put it in the second movement, the Larghetto, of Sonatina in G Major, Opus 100. Why Opus 100 and not Opus 99? A father's love and devotion to his children!  Although technically this opus was his Opus 99, his children wanted it to be named Opus 100 (it sounded nicer to them than Opus 99), so that's what he named it.

Dvorak, apart from being a great composer, was also a great father. When he came to stay in the United States, he desperately missed his family and had them come stay with him for long periods of time. Kovarik taught the four children the Sonatina in G Major, which they played for their father in the winter of 1894. When they played, Kovarik stated that "Dvorak was so beside himself with joy that he cried and embraced his children and thanked them for the happiness they had given him that evening."

Dvorak's great grandson, Josef Suk, playing the 2nd movement of Sonatina in G Major, Opus 100:

The Cesko-Slovanskv Podporujic i Spolek (C.S.P.S.) is a building in Saint Paul, MN where Dvorak was feted before and after his Minnehaha Falls experience on September 5th, 1893. Over 3,000 guests attended the informal reception, all wanting to see Dvorak. The building, at 383 Michigan St. in St. Paul, is still dedicated to Czech festivities and remembrances of the time that Dvorak spent there.

The C.S.P.S.building in Saint Paul, MN

It's amazing to think how a world famous composer found inspiration in our beautiful city of Saint Paul, MN and across the river in Minneapolis's Minnehaha Falls.

We would like to thank and credit Minnesota History Magazine for letting us use most of the information found throughout this blog.
Minnesota History, Fall 1968 

Another great article is in the MPR archives - Dvorak's time in the Midwest 


  1. Thanks for posting the story of this beautiful melody, and Mr. Suk's wonderful performance of it.

  2. Hi, that's a lovely piece. My sense though is that what he wrote on his cuffs wasn't the G minor melody at the beginning of the piece, but the "waterfall music" in G major in the middle. It's clearly meant to suggest the Falls, and it's quite similar to the motive Dvorak intended to depict Minnehaha in his Hiawatha opera (which he never completed). One can never say for sure what happened (alas, the shirt was probably quickly laundered...) but again, I feel pretty sure it was the second tune in the slow movement.

  3. The Larghetto slow movement evokes tears every time. No one played it like Kreisler, though! Even Suk I feel rushes it a bit here, and it is too tangible. This is a dreamy, other worldly movement. Truly like a Lament.

  4. We at the CSPS hall aka. Czech and Slovak Sokol Minnesota thank you for this article. We are tentatively planning events in 2023 to commemorate Dvorak's visit to Minnesota.

  5. Delightful to come across this piece of history as I listen to Dvorak's 9nth!