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The Indianist Movement

From about 1890 through the 1920s, American classical composers began borrowing American Indian themes and synthesized them with Western Classical music forms and principles.

Compositions by Charles Wakefield Cadman, Arthur Farwell, Charles Sanford Skilton, Arthur Nevin, and many others appealed to classical music audiences during this time. Here are some general references on the subject of the Indianist Movement:

  • [Browner 1997] - Breathing the Indian Spirit: Thoughts on Musical Borrowing and the Indianist Movement in American Music
  • [Bruning 2005] - The Indian Character Piece for Solo Piano (ca. 1890-1920) : A Historical Review of Composers and Their Works
  • [Vargyas 1964] - Bartók's Melodies in the Style of Folk Songs


  • [Orem 1918] - American Indian Rhapsody
  • [Miller 1910] - Melodic Views of Indian Life
  • Thurlow Weed Lieurance (March 21, 1878- December 9, 1963) was an American composer, known primarily for his song "By the Waters of Minnetonka".
  • many more are cataloged …



The Indianist Movement was one element of a wider interest in the use of folk music of all ethnic cultures ([Pisani 2005]). A major force in this movement was Antonín Dvořák [an-toh-nin di-vohr-zhak], a Czech composer who was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City from 1892-1895.

Dvořák had incorporated Czech folk themes into his music and his goal in America was to immerse himself in traditional American song idioms. In a series of news editorials, he said that these traditional Negro and American Indian themes could be used as a vehicle for the growth of American music, and allow American composers to find their own nation's music ([Beckerman 2003]).

As with much of the Indianist movement compositions, it is not clear how directly Dvořák borrowed Native American melodies. Possibly because of issues that would be called today "intellectual property issues", there were often conflicting reports as to how closely a composer borrowed from the melodic themes of indigenous cultures.

In early 1893, Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (Opus 95), subtitled "From the New World" (and generally known as the "New World Symphony"). This symphony has received wide acclaim and a recorded performance was even left on our Moon by Apollo 11.

On December 15, 1893, the day before the first performance of the New World Symphony, Dvořák wrote in the New York Herald:

Since I have been in this country I have been deeply interested in the Music of the Negroes and the Indians. The character, the very nature of a race is contained in its national music. For that reason my attention was at once turned in the direction of these native melodies.

This call for composers draw upon their own folk heritage for inspiration offended some and inspired others to search for a music that was uniquely American ([Bruning 2005], page 4).

Arthur Mees wrote for the December 25-16, 1893 program notes "Synopsis of Compositions" for the Philharmonic Society of New York, Fifty-Second Season, 1893 - 1894:

The views which Dr. Dvorak entertains in regard to "national" music, or more accurately, the influence which national and racial peculiarities exert on music, have given rise to much discussion. In the present symphony he offers a practical illustration of his principles. In order to facilitate the understanding of the work and of the spirit in which it was conceived as well as the theory on which it is constructed, Dr. Dvorak has kindly given the following explanation. On his arrival in America the composer was deeply impressed by the conditions peculiar to this country and the spirit of which they were the outward manifestation. In continuing his activity he found that the works which he created here were essentially different from those which had sprung into existence in his native country. They were clearly influenced by the new surroundings and by the new life of which these were the material evidences. Dr. Dvorak made a study of Indian and Negro melodies and found them possessed of characteristics peculiarly their own. He identified himself with their spirit, made their essential contents, not their formal external traits, his own.

However, in the same New York Herald article cited above, Dvořák wrote:

I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral color.

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