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.”
About the Concert
Featuring David Heuser, the Columbia Orchestra 2007 American Composer Competition Winner.
Hightlighting America for our season finale, we feature Dvořák and Barber's best known works and the 2007 American Composer Competition Winner. Baltimore Symphony Concertmaster Jonathan Carney rounds out the program with a beautiful, uplifting -- and yes, sometimes jazzy! -- violin concerto by Willian Bolcom.