The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World")

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Thomas May

Antonín Dvorák composed the last of his nine symphonies between January and May 1893. A testament to the composer's experiences from his time living in the United States, where he composed the Ninth, it has remained one of the most popular works of the symphonic repertory ever since its sensational world premiere in New York City.

By the 1890s, Dvorák's international fame made him among the most highly regarded of living composers. Yet despite his identification as the epitome of Czech music-not to mention a deep-seated fear of traveling-he undertook the lengthy voyage to the New World for a sojourn in the United States that lasted from 1892 to 1895 (with one five-month interlude back home). Like Haydn's late-life visits to England, the encounter proved to be of enormous mutual significance. It inspired, among other works, the Symphony No. 9 (tagged by Dvorák himself as music "From the New World") and the Cello Concerto.

So how did the pre-eminent Czech composer of the day end up in America? Dvorák had been invited to direct the new National Conservatory of Music located in New York's Lower East Side. The Conservatory was the brainchild of music enthusiast and patron Jeannette Thurber. Her millionaire husband had amassed a fortune from his success in the grocery business, enabling Thurber to realize her ambitious dream of founding a national musical center to foster an authentically American art-this in a

Eurocentric era when the usual course for anyone desiring a serious career in music was to head abroad for training. Even more, Thurber's progressive ideas meant that the Conservatory welcomed women, the underprivileged, and African-Americans and other minorities as students.

Dvorák's American sojourn led to feelings of intense homesickness, but it also had tremendous artistic payoff and helped to further expand the composer's reputation (as well as his fortune, since Thurber offered a fabulously generous salary). By this point, Dvorák had reached a moment in his career when it proved to his advantage to have a reprieve from "certain artistic pressures in Europe," as Michael B. Beckerman writes in his excellent book on the American years, New Worlds of Dvorák. He had become typecast as the successor to Brahms, which is to say as an exponent of "absolute" music-music understood to be self-contained as opposed to being allied with images and narratives outside the musical realm.

Dvorák, observes Beckerman, was nevertheless "ready to move in a different direction," and even though the symphony and the concerto represent archetypal forms of absolute music, scholars continue to ponder evidence of hidden "subtexts" from literature and the composer's own life woven into the Symphony No. 9 and the Cello Concerto alike. His nostalgia for Bohemia and the stimulation of his new America surroundings (musical, social, and scenic) thus blended together with extraordinarily fertile results. While the "New World" Symphony is often discussed in terms of influences from Native- and African-American sources (see sidebar), Dvorák's characteristic Bohemian flavors also pervade the score.

Dvorák launches the first movement with hints of the epic breadth of the work to unfold, yet his gestures are at the same time concise and concentrated. After a brief introduction and a burst of almost Beethovenian fury, the main theme erupts from the horns. With an easily recognizable upward-downward direction, it will recur in each movement and even spawns the additional themes here, including the closing one entrusted to flute (which seems to evoke a different, rustic world but is also closely related). Dvorák then develops this small store of musical material with tremendous dramatic verve.

One particularly American angle comes into play in the two middle movements. We know that Dvorák was intrigued by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem of 1854, The Song of Hiawatha. He even remarked that the Largo grew from a sketch for an operatic treatment of the epic that was never realized, while the Scherzo had been inspired by a scene "where the Indians dance." In Beckerman's view, a host of images from Hiawatha pervades the score, from Longfellow's pastoral evocations of the landscape to the tragic passage of Minnehaha's forest funeral. Whatever the case, this is music of deeply engaging beauty, framed by magical harmonic modulations at the outset. It's astonishing how much emotional resonance Dvorák evokes from the ultrafamous but simple English horn melody (folk-like and pentatonic), clothing it in a variety of orchestral colors.

The Scherzo boils over with Dvorák's signature rhythmic drive. He works in the first-movement theme to surprising effect in the transition to the middle section and again at the close. A rousing brass fanfare launches the finale with powerful momentum. Material from the preceding movements reappears, including the Largo tune in more-dramatic guises. Dvorák makes space for his richly melodic gift while at the same time shaping a thrillingly urgent climax. Yet in the final moments, as the main themes recombine, "victory" hardly seems to be the point. Dvorák commentator David Hurwitz describes the ending as a "tragic finale," noting that "even that very American-sounding boogie-woogie bass line and last-minute turn to the major key can't efface the sadness that lingers as the final chord fades slowly and gently to triple piano." The truly American sound of the blues isn't far off.

Dvorák's American Impressions

One question that has never been decisively settled since the first performance of the "New World" Symphony is just how "American" it really is. Himself a minority within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Czech Dvorák was particularly sensitive to the spirit of what he considered indigenous American folk music. Soon after arriving in New York, Dvorák observed that America possessed rich raw material in its own folk idioms, remarking that "the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies." One of his students at the Conservatory exposed him to a range of African-American spirituals, and he encountered such (admittedly spurious) sources as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

At the same time, Dvorák disclaimed quoting actual American melodies in this score (whether from spirituals or ritual Native American music) and pointed out that he wrote "original themes" touched by the flavor peculiar to indigenous American elements but treated with all the "modern" resources of symphonic writing. A telling example of how tricky the issue became occurs in the Largo, which contains the Symphony's best-known tune (the one on English horn). It sounds so much like a spiritual that one of Dvorák's students later penned lyrics to it ("Goin' Home"), creating a version that then became known on its own as a latter-day spiritual. And the famous flute tune in the first movement, which seems to quote "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," is actually a cousin of the main theme.