ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
SYMPHONY No. 9 IN E MINOR, FROM THE NEW WORLD
Premiered: New York, 1983
- Adagio - Allegro molto
- Scherzo – Molto vivace
- Allegro con fuoco
First performed as the composer’s Symphony No. 5, then published as No. 8 before reaching its absolutely-final, we-mean-it-this-time numerical berth in Dvořák’s catalog as No. 9, the New World symphony was written in New York, during Dvořák’s tenure as Director of the National Conservatory of Music. For Dvořák, this was a time of great professional success but much personal unhappiness.
There has long been a small industry in divining the emotional origins of Dvořák’s music, largely stemming from his complicated love life. Similarly, everybody “knows” how Dvořák used American Indian and Negro spiritual themes in the symphony, and everybody is, alas, wrong. Dvořák first came into contact with Native American music in Spillville, Iowa, whose population was almost entirely Czech at the time. Far from going there to absorb Native American influence, however, Dvořák was invited there by his friend Joseph Kovarik in the hope of getting him away from New York City to something more like his Bohemian home. The town was visited several times a week by Native Americans selling medicines; while there, they would camp outside town and sing and dance in the evenings. Dvořák took great interest in all of this, and bought several native instruments to take back to New York, and thence home to Prague. However, not a note of the New World symphony has anything to do with this; Dvořák completed the symphony before going to Iowa.
Dvořák said in the New York Herald:
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.
He followed this with an observation that Native American music closely resembled that of Scotland. He appeared to be serious.
There is, in fact, nothing at all in the music even faintly resembling Native American music. Dvořák once called the Negro Spiritual the “folk songs of America,” but used none of them in his New World Symphony. The famous Goin’ Home words were added later to the slow movement by one of Dvořák’s students, who thought the tune resembled Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Which it doesn’t – any more than other melodies in the piece resemble Yankee Doodle, Deep River or any of the numerous American melodies that have been cited over the decades as the inspiration for the piece.
So, why the title? Dvořák actually intended the title to carry the suggestion of a greeting “from the New World” to his much-missed countrymen (and one particular countrywoman) back home – which is why he used a Bohemian melody in the slow movement.
The reality is that the symphony is a Czech masterpiece. That America could inspire such music from the Bohemian master is cause enough for national pride without raiding the music itself for local borrowings. The Symphony is bigger than all of us.
One of the more alarming accounts of the first movement tells us that it evokes Dvořák’s visit to Buffalo Bill’s Rodeo show, and his personal encounter with the great frontiersman. A fairly normal sonata movement with a slow introduction drawn from fragments of the later material is a safer interpretation.
The slow movement by now almost defies introduction, beyond saying that it enshrines that tune. The first listeners were so moved that they stood and applauded the movement as soon as the conductor lowered his baton.
The scherzo may or may not have Hiawatha at its heart. What it certainly does have is a startling quotation from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which appears twice. If Pau-Puk-Keewis (“Yenadizze, Whom the people called the Storm-Fool”) really is present, he takes an unmistakable detour through Austria to reach the shores of Gitche Gumee in the quiet central passage.
The finale follows Dvořák’s by-now standard symphonic procedure of reprising and re-coordinating material from the earlier movements to tie the whole work together.
We can agree or not about the American-ness of Dvořák’s music. It is rather easier, however, to agree with William Arms Fisher, the Dvořák disciple who turned the slow movement into Goin’ Home. In a book dedicated to Dvořák, Fisher said: “Blessed are the music-makers, for they shall uplift and unite the Earth.”
GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Premiered: New York, 1932
In February, 1932, George Gershwin fled the appalling winter that had overtaken New York that year and sailed, with an entourage of six, to Havana, Cuba, where he holed up just long enough to absorb the local atmosphere and Hispanic verve that went into his Cuban Overture. He finished the piece in New York that August.
Having once left the orchestration of one of his greatest works – the Rhapsody in Blue – to someone else (Ferde Grofé), Gershwin was by now his own very capable orchestrator. He famously asked the great orchestral colorist Ravel for lessons; Ravel asked him how much money he had earned the previous year. Gershwin told him (nearly twenty times Ravel’s own income), and Ravel replied “I should be asking you for lessons.” Gone, also, is his timidity over his own technical competence. For all its shimmering local color and (especially) rhythmic vitality, the Cuban Overture is in its way a very serious work. At the first performance, the title was simply Rumba (and it certainly is one), but by the second performance Gershwin had retitled the piece, to give, he said “a more just idea of the character and intent of the music.” Not content with demanding Cuban percussion instruments and playing techniques, Gershwin includes in the score a detailed diagram of how they should be deployed on the platform.
Determined to acquire what he considered a “proper” compositional technique, Gershwin had enrolled the previous summer as a student with the uncompromising theorist Joseph Schillinger, who set him to work analyzing Stravinsky and completing compositional exercises of terrifying abstruseness and complexity. The Cuban Overture, paradoxically, was the first fruit of this unlikely relationship. Or maybe the second; only weeks before signing the last page of the score, Gershwin had handed in an assignment entitled Rhythmic Groups Resulting from the Interference of Several Synchronized Periodicities.
None of this prevents the Cuban Overture from being its joyous self, dancing around Échale Salsita, a song that had wafted through every bar in Havana while Gershwin was there, and even sneaking in a glimpse of La Paloma.
Gershwin would not live long enough to become a typical product of the Schillinger studio, but only he could perform short-base periodic interference on a rumba.
CHRISTOPHER ROUSE (born 1949)
Premiered: New York, 1992
The list of trombone concerti is not long, and the list of important trombone concerti is even shorter. It is more than surprising, then, to find the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Music going to a trombone concerto – an important work by an important living American composer, Christopher Rouse.
Rouse was born in Baltimore and studied at Oberlin Conservatory and Cornell before moving on to teach at the University of Michigan and, finally, New York’s Juilliard School. A daunting series of artistic awards and prizes has culminated in elevation to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This would usually indicate a forbidding composer of forbidding music, but this is not at all true of Rouse, whose music is a unique synthesis of modernism and a peculiarly American spirit of romanticism quite unlike any other composer at work today.
The concerto was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as a showpiece for their principal trombonist, Joseph Alessi and as a marker for the orchestra’s sesquicentennial, but Rouse soon realized he was writing something far less ephemeral; the work became a memorial to Leonard Bernstein, who died in October 1990. Rouse worked with him in the summer of 1989, and was much moved by his passing. The very obvious reference to a motif from Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony in the concerto’s third movement, therefore, is absolutely no accident.
Mr. Rouse has given us his own description of the concerto:
The concerto is organized as two adagios flanking a central scherzo. the first movement begins and ends with sparse, ritualized music of an understatedly rhetorical nature, with its centerpiece being an expanding passacaglia featuring the soloist accompanied by the strings of the orchestra. The middle movement alternates scurrying music (which introduces the orchestral brass section for the first time in the score) with a more dancelike central part -- the music ultimately builds to a loud, almost apocalyptic climax, and this gives way to the elegiac finale, primarily a funeral march, in which the Bernstein quote leads the music back to the hieratic material which began the piece. Each of the movements is connected by a brief cadenza for the solo trombone.
About the Concert
Antonin Dvořák’s most famous work was inspired by the sights, sounds, and music of the US, while George Gershwin mined the riches of Cuban rhythms for his thrilling overture. Plus, here’s an extraordinary opportunity to hear Christopher Rouse's Pulitzer Prize-winning work in the hall named for his cousin Jim Rouse, featuring National Symphony Trombonist David Murray.
Join us for the pre-concert lecture with Bill Scanlan Murphy at 6:30pm.