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Spectacles, Stamps, and A Fifteen-Year Friendship

The Story of Two Pen Pals and the Emil Hess, Jr. Collection of Dvořák Memorabilia at Severance Hall

May 2015

A stamp collector and a bakery owner began an unlikely friendship shortly after the end of World War II. Otakar Dvořák, the son of the famous Antonín, lived in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) at the time. As an avid stamp collector, he hoped to establish correspondence with someone in America, and advertised in a Czech magazine that he was looking for a pen pal. Mrs. Emil Hess, a Cleveland resident and bakery co-owner with her husband Emil, came upon Otakar’s ad. Having grown up in Bohemia herself, she was familiar with the work of Antonín Dvořák and was eager to begin correspondence with Otakar.  She replied to the ad, and they soon began writing letters to each other.

Also at this time, Mrs. Hess was sending hundreds of packages of clothing and food to relatives and friends in Bohemia to help them get back on their feet in the wake of the war. Once in contact with Otakar, she began shipping items to the Dvořák family as well. In return, they sent her mementoes associated with the great composer, because they knew of her interest in classical music and in Dvořák’s compositions in particular. Mrs. Hess stayed in contact with Otakar for fifteen years, and continued to correspond with Mrs. Dvořák after Otakar’s death in 1961. During this exchange, Mrs. Hess built a sizeable collection of Dvořák memorabilia, which she donated to Severance Hall in 1964 in memory of her son, Emil Hess, who had passed away the previous year.

Emil Hess, Jr.

Mrs. Hess donated many unique items to Severance Hall as part of the Hess Collection, including a photographic portrait autographed by Dvořák in 1903, a rare album of 60 large loose-leaf pages published in Prague in 1954 for the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death; postage stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birthday; a variety of photographs of the Dvořák family; and a pair of Dvořák’s own pince-nez spectacles.

Signed photograph of Antonín Dvořák, 1903
Czech postcard featuring Czech composers, photograph taken ca. 1885 (Dvořák is 2nd from left)
Czech postcard featuring the beginning of Dvořák’s manuscript of his Symphony No. 9
(“From the New World”)
Commemorative stamps in honor of the 100th anniversary of Dvořák’s birthday, 1941
A pair of Dvořák’s pince-nez spectacles
Plate from Prague album reflecting Dvořák’s time in Spilleville, Iowa (from top: a church in Spillville; the street where Dvořák lived; Dvořák as a conductor in Chicago; portrait of Stephen Foster, whose song “Old Folks at Home” Dvořák used for a cantata)
Plate from Prague album about Dvořák’s Quartet in F Major, “American” (from top left:  notes for F major Quartet, Kneisel Quartet rehearsing Dvořák’s quartet for its premiere; Carnegie Hall in 1893, where the quartet was first performed)
“I shall always remain just what I have been – a simple Czech musician.”
—Antonín Dvořák, quote reproduced in Prague album, 1954

The initial correspondence between a baker and a stamp collector living across the world from each other led to a lasting friendship between families and an immensely meaningful donation to The Cleveland Orchestra. Cleveland may seem an unlikely place to come across items like Dvořák’s pince-nez, but Severance Hall is always full of surprises.

—Kate Rogers

Kate Rogers is an intern thsi season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.
She is a PhD student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University.

All photographs courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

Looking for more?
The Cleveland Orchestra will be performing Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”) on May 14, 15, and 16, and his Symphony No. 5 in F Major on May 29. Click on the links for details!

In this New York Times article, Michael Cooper writes about Dvořák’s decision to come to the United States from 1892-1895.
Listen to Marin Alsop discuss her thoughts on Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) in this NPR Music story.