Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World, Op. 95
Related Artists/CompaniesAntonín Dvorák
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Dvorák's "From the New World" Symphony, plus Mozart and an NSO debut - Jan. 23 - 25, 2014
Eschenbach leads Dvorák's Symphony No. 9, Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony, and a recent work by Avner Dorman featuring the NSO debut of young Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger, "a master of the high-speed chase" (New York Times).
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Beyond the Score: Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 - Whose World? - Fri., Jan. 24, 2014, 8:00 PM
For aficionados and newcomers alike, this series uses actors, narration, excerpts, and multimedia to share captivating stories behind a score, followed by a full performance of the work. This event explores Dvorák's towering "New World" Symphony.
About the Work
Dvořák spent three eventful and stimulating years (1892-95) in New York as director of the National Conservatory of Music, and during that period visited Chicago and other points west. He was fascinated by the trains, and by everything American; almost as soon as he arrived in the fall of 1892 he began composing the symphony that was to be his last work in that form, and the only one to which he affixed a descriptive title: From the New World. The work was completed the following May and was given its premiere on December 16, 1893, by the New York Philharmonic under Anton Seidl. It quickly proved to be the most popular of all the Czech master's symphonic works, and it remains to this day the most beloved of all symphonies created in our country, by either a native composer or a visiting one.
Between the completion of this score and the premiere there was a great deal of curiosity, in the popular press as well as musical circles, about Dvořák and his new symphony. He undertook to acquaint the public with his objectives and procedures in composing the work, and to express himself on the broad subject of the future of music in the New World. In writing this work, he explained, he was motivated in part by his wish to show American composers how to capture their national spirit in music. Because he remarked especially on the value of Negro spirituals as a source of a “national” music for America, it was widely assumed for some time that this symphony and the other works he composed here—such as the String Quartet in F major (Op. 96) and the Quintet in E-flat (Op. 97)—were built on themes borrowed from black, Indian and perhaps other indigenous folk sources; but this was not the case.
Dvořák hardly ever used any but original themes in his music. Even in his two sets of Slavonic Dances, so filled with authentic folk flavor, there is not a single borrowed tune, and in composing this symphony he followed the same procedure. Henry Thacker (Harry) Burleigh, a student at the conservatory when Dvořák was its director, frequently sang spirituals for him, and recalled later that the composer “just saturated himself in the spirit of those old tunes and then invented his own themes.” In an article published in The New York Herald on the eve of the work's premiere, Dvořák stated:
Now I found that the music of the Negroes and the Indians was practically identical. I therefore carefully studied a certain number of Indian melodies which a friend gave me, and became thoroughly imbued with their characteristics—with their spirit, in fact. It is this spirit which I have tried to reproduce in my symphony. I have not actually used any of the melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythm, harmony, counterpoint and orchestral color.
Indeed, the only specifically American source Dvořák identified was not a musical one, but a literary inspiration for portions of the symphony. He continued his remarks with this movement-by-movement description:
The Symphony . . . opens with a short introduction, an Adagio of about 30 bars . . . This leads directly into the Allegro, which embodies the principles which I have already worked out in my Slavonic Dances: that is, to preserve, to translate into music, the spirit of a race as distinct in its national melodies or folk songs.
The second movement is an Adagio [actually the famous Largo ]. But it is different to the classic works in this form. It is in reality a study or sketch for a longer work, either a cantata or opera, which I purpose writing, and which will be based upon Longfellow's Hiawatha. I have long had the idea of some day utilizing that poem. I first became acquainted with it about 30 years ago through the medium of a Bohemian translation. It appealed very strongly to my imagination at that time, and the impression has only been strengthened by my residence here. [The specific section of the poem represented in the Largo is thought to be “Hiawatha's Wooing.”]
The scherzo . . . was suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance, and is also an essay which I made in the direction of imparting local color of an Indian character to music.
[In the final movement] all the previous themes reappear and are treated in a variety of ways. The instruments are only those of what we call the “Beethoven orchestra” . . . There is no harp and I did not find it necessary to add any novel instrument in order to get the effect I wanted.
In the light of the composer's own words, it is hard to imagine how respected musicians could have continued for years to speak and write of themes in this work as having come from folk sources; but that in itself is perhaps a measure of Dvořák's success in achieving his stated objective. One of his tunes, to be sure, more or less became a folk song, when William Arms Fisher, who had been one of his conservatory students, fitted his “Going Home” text to the English horn theme of the second movement.
But this symphony is not American music. Dvořák's strong ties to his native soil were never weakened, and were in fact especially strong during his sojourn in the New World. Avidly as he sought and absorbed the flavor of American life, he never mistook it for his own and never regarded himself as its spokesman. He enjoyed part of the summer of 1893 in the thriving colony of transplanted Czechs in Spillville, Iowa, where the patterns of his native music were given renewed emphasis even as he did the actual sketching and scoring of the aforementioned chamber works. While the Symphony in E minor represents his impressions of the New World, he pointed out, it is not and could not be, the kind of American music that would be written by an American composer. It is “American” to about the same degree that Gershwin's American in Paris is “French”: as a report home, it is remarkably successful in evoking the spirit and atmosphere Dvořák, as a visiting Czech, wished to convey in his own terms—and part of it, even amid the fascination and enthusiasm, is his undisguised homesickness.