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  • Gordon Gerrard

Dvořák and the astronaut’s luggage

At time of writing, I am sitting at my desk, procrastinating. I’m supposed to be packing, you see. I have a flight that leaves excruciatingly early in the morning, which means I shouldn’t leave packing to the twelve minutes or less after I wake up, as is my custom. If you’re like me in this respect, then I suggest you take your lead from NASA’s (unofficial) packing list. You’re guaranteed to be packed in the time it takes for a cab to get to your house.


An astronaut’s suitcase contains two pairs of shoes, two sweaters, a pair of shorts and two T-shirts, along with one shirt and one pair of pants for every ten days of travel. The next part may make you slightly uncomfortable, but they also throw in one pair of socks and one pair of underwear for every two days. Don’t judge—apparently there’s not a lot of legroom on a spaceship.


Reasonably, they are also allowed to bring a few personal items. Commander Chris Hadfield brought his guitar; Neil Armstrong thew in an LP of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.


I suppose if I were about to step onto the moon, I like to think that I would choose my personal soundtrack carefully. Dvorak seems like as good a pick as any to me. The New World Symphony is, in its very essence, epic travelling music. Dvorak wrote this symphony, his ninth and final one, while he was living abroad in the United States. While it may not be quite comparable to journeying to the moon, getting from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to New York City in 1892 would have been no small accomplishment. Bring along your wife and six children and the logistics may have been not far off space travel.


Dvorak spent three years living and working in the United States. His main source of income during this time was earned through teaching—he was the Director of the National Conservatory of Music. But through all this time, he remained first and foremost a composer. While in New York (and a short stint in Spillville, Iowa), Dvorak was keenly interested in the music of the Americas, especially African-American spirituals, and this music became the inspiration for his Ninth Symphony. “These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil,” he said. He was convinced that the future of music in North America would be found in this American folk music, the music of the American people.


Whether that’s the direction music ultimately took is up for debate, but Dvorak was definitely onto something with his New World Symphony. It is by far his most popular work, and over one hundred years later, it shows no signs of aging. The symphony is filled with some of the greatest tunes ever put to paper; and it is a masterful display of dazzling orchestration and rhythmic invention.


As the holidays approach and travelling is on all our minds, may your journeys be epic and your connecting flights be timely. And I wish you ample luggage space for the appropriate amount of underwear.

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© 2020 by GORDON GERRARD. Photos by Brent Calis and Ryan Stewart.