Mr. Strothotte, who later shortened his name to Maurice Arnold, was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1865. He was born to a physician, his father, and prominent pianist, his mother, who was also his first music teacher. At fifteen years of age, Arnold traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio to study at the College of Music for three years. In 1883, he traveled to Berlin, Germany to study counterpoint and composition under Georg Vierling and Heinrich Urban. The latter showed great resistance when Arnold began incorporating African-American “plantation” dance elements into his music.
Following his studies, Arnold went on a European tour, which influenced the music he wrote along the way, as he drew on folk music from countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey. He then returned to Germany and continued to study with various renowned composers before returning to St. Louis to work as a solo violinist, teacher, and opera conductor.
Arnold was one of many African-American students of Antonin Dvořák during the Bohemian composer’s stay in the U.S. The relationship resulted in huge success for Arnold in that he was able to have pieces premiered at such famous theaters as Carnegie Hall. One example of this is his four-movement suite, Plantation Dances, Op. 32, which was performed internationally shortly after its premier at one of Dvořák’s own Carnegie Hall concerts. Arnold’s compositional expertise evolved exponentially as he continued to compose a wide range of musical works, including comic operas.
While Dvořák’s mission was to raise African-American music to the surface of American music, there was much backlash. Edward MacDowell, Dean of American composers of his day, wrote, “In spite of Dvořák’s efforts to dress up American music in Negro clothing, it is my opinion that foreign artistry should have no place in our music, if it is to be worth of our free country.”
However, Dvořák proudly defended African-American music as one of the true sources of American music: “I am now convinced that the future music of this country must be built on the foundations of the songs which are called Negro melodies. They must become the basis of a serious and original school of composition which should be established in the United States of America.” Dvořák drew from African-American music himself, as well as taught and encouraged many young African-American composers. Arnold was, however, a star pupil. Dvořák and his family shared a box of honor with Arnold at the Carnegie Hall premiere of Dvořák’s Symphony From the New World on December 16, 1893.
Even though slavery had been abolished thirty years prior, it is clear that Dvořák and Arnold’s relationship raised suspicion and voices of hate in a self-proclaimed post-racial society. However, it remains a story of hope and inspiration that an outsider from what was Czechoslovakia came to the United States and saw so much in what others considered so little. Dvořák crusaded for and supported African-Americans and their cultural impact on the vast American song repertoire. As a result, Arnold, whose fellow countrymen and women may have continued to write him off as inferior or “unworthy,” came to be a successful American composer.
—Glen Healy (Christie Finn, ed.)
This biographical essay is made possible because of the Song of America Initiative for African-American Classic Song, a collaboration between the Hampsong Foundation and Dr. Scott Piper’s Winter 2016 course “The Art Songs of African American Composers” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Hughes, Rupert. Contemporary American Composers: Being a Study of the Music of This Country, and of Its Future, with Biographies of the Leading Composers of the Present Time. Boston: L.C. Page & Co, 1900. Print.
Kolt, Robert Paul. “Arnold, Maurice [Strothotte, Maurice Arnold].” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 7 June 2017.
Riis, Thomas L. “Dvořák and His Black Students.” Rethinking Dvořák: Views from Five Countries. Ed. David R. Beveridge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Print.