Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Opus 95, From the New World

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Opus 95, From the New World

BORN: September 8, 1841. Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, Bohemia
DIED: May 1, 1904. Prague

COMPOSED: Between December 1892 and spring 1893, mostly in New York City

WORLD PREMIERE: December 15, 1893. Anton Seidl and the New York Philharmonic played a  “public rehearsal”; the official premiere took place the following evening at Carnegie Hall (then called simply the Music Hall)

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— October 1912. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—April 2013. Christoph Eschenbach conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, and strings

DURATION: About 40 mins

Jeanette Thurber was not a woman who easily accepted no for an answer. In June 1891, she invited Dvořák to New York to direct the National Conservatory of Music, an establishment she had been nurturing into existence over several years. Thurber had studied music in Paris, and when she returned to the United States she used the considerable financial resources of her businessman-husband to create an American conservatory in the French image—which is to say, one in which talented students of all backgrounds would be supported at the government’s expense, regardless of sex or of racial or economic background. In 1891, she finally managed to get the organization chartered through an act of Congress. By that time she had already enlisted an impressive roster of musicians to serve on the faculty, including the pianist Rafael Joseffy and the cellist (and composer) Victor Herbert. Securing a composer of Dvořák’s eminence to lead the conservatory would be a phenomenal coup. And she brought it off.

On September 26, 1892, Dvořák and part of his family arrived in New York (four of six children remained back home in Bohemia) and took up residence at a townhouse at 327 East 17th Street, a short stroll from the National Conservatory (which was located at 126-128 East 17th Street, on a site now occupied by Washington Irving High School). The Dvořák home is no more. In 1941, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had a historical plaque installed on the façade in a bow to the composer’s centennial. The building’s façade was granted landmark status in February 1991 (the Dvořák sesquicentennial), but within months a nearby hospital, which by that time owned the property, prevailed on New York’s City Council to overturn that landmark designation. In August 1991 the house was accordingly razed to make way for an AIDS hospice. The block was re-named Dvořák Place, and in 1997 a non-profit group called the Dvořák American Heritage Association installed a statue of the composer in Stuyvesant Square Park, just across the street from where he had lived. Dvořák would remain a New Yorker until 1895 (spending the summer of 1893 in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, and the following summer in Prague), building the National Conservatory’s curriculum and faculty, appearing as a guest conductor, and composing such masterworks as his String Quartet No. 12 in F major (Opus 96, The American), his String Quintet in E-flat major (Opus 97), and his Symphony From the New World. The National Conservatory continued to flourish for two decades following Dvořák’s years there. But by 1915 its reputation began to wane; it left its 17th Street facility and moved from one address to another, disappearing from the scene in 1928.

Although he was occasionally wracked with homesickness, there is no question that Dvořák enjoyed much about his American years. Musical New York made much of him, delighting in having so distinguished a European composer in their midst. Dvořák found many of his students to be receptive and stimulating, and his insatiable musical curiosity went into high gear when he encountered African-American and American Indian music. These repertories have been much invoked in discussion of the Symphony From the New World, beginning with the composer’s own observations about the piece.

The African-American presence in the American music scene was immense during Dvořák’s years, which coincided with the rise of ragtime. Born of certain strands of African-American music in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, ragtime emerged into mainstream commercial consciousness through minstrel shows and, in the 1890s, through performances at prestigious popular venues (the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—which Dvořák attended--is often cited) by such pianist-composers as Scott Joplin. But ragtime left no effect on Dvořák. His fascination seems to have centered more on spirituals. One of his National Conservatory students, Harry Burleigh, would create dozens of spiritual arrangements that would become famous beyond the African-American community, arrangements whose European “respectability” were perfectly in line with, say, Brahms’s take on German folk songs or Dvořák’s settings of Moravian traditional tunes.

So far as American Indian music is concerned, we know that Dvořák did attend one of Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West” shows in New York in the spring of 1893, which would have included a fair measure of more-or-less authentic singing and dancing from a group of Oglala Sioux who belonged to Cody’s troupe. (These Indians, as it happened, hailed from the Pine Ridge reservation in the Dakota Territory, which only two years earlier had been the location of the notorious massacre at Wounded Knee.) Since Dvořák was just then completing his Symphony From the New World, it’s impossible that the music he heard on that occasion could have inspired the symphony’s material in any direct way; and the same must be said of the Iroquois performers Dvořák encountered a few months later at a performance given by the Kickapoo Medicine Company during his summer in Spillville.

The fact is that, for all his interest in cultural diversity, Dvořák was not an ethnomusicologist. Scarcely a decade after the Symphony From the New World was premiered, a legion of composers sallied into the field in search of the authentic voice of the people: Kodály in Hungary, Vaughan Williams in Great Britain, Bartók seemingly everywhere. Dvořák was of an older generation, and he was happy to derive folkish inspiration at arm’s length and subsume it into his own artistic vocabulary. This was common practice in the 1890s, when a considerable number of classical composers (such as the so-called “American-Indianists”) provided American audiences with purportedly “ethnic” music gussied up in concert-dress clothes. This was to some extent analogous to what James Fenimore Cooper and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had achieved in their literary works infused with purported Indian lore, or to the carefully styled photographs Edward S. Curtis began taking in the 1890s and that would pave the way towards his monumental photographic collection, The North American Indian.

The ethnic influences on the New World Symphony become interesting in light of the composer’s own assertions about the subject. The New York Herald of May 21, 1893, carried an article by the journalist James Creelman, who quoted Dvořák as saying that, “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the [African-American] melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed with this idea and it has developed into a settled conviction.” Dvořák again spoke with the Herald on the day of his new symphony’s premiere to emphasize the work’s American Indian connections, specifically citing parallels to Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (which was a Romantic effusion rather than an authentic expression of any Native culture).

The premiere of the New World Symphony, with Anton Seidl conducting the New York Philharmonic, was a huge success, the greatest of the composer’s career, and the critic Henry T. Finck, writing in the New York Evening Post, proclaimed it “the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country,” which at that point was probably true. The title came to Dvořák as an afterthought, and he added it just before delivering the score to the Philharmonic, later explaining that it signified nothing more than “impressions and greetings from the New World.” But for that subtitle, a listener encountering the piece for the first time might not consider it less demonstrative of the “Czech spirit” than any of the composer’s other symphonies. But the name has invited all manner of speculation, and, buoyed by Dvořák’s own allusions, musicologists have found in its melodies echoes of such undeniably American tunes as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” not to mention more general turns of phrase that invite a “folkish” interpretation. Coincidences all? Perhaps. Syncopated rhythms and modal melodies are emblematic of many folk and popular musical traditions, those of Bohemia and the United States included. For his part, Dvořák would go on to downplay whatever debt to American music might lie in these much-admired pages. “I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of [American] Indian music,” he insisted to Harper’s magazine, “and using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestral color.”

For all its presumed American-ness, Dvořák’s New World Symphony is perhaps best approached as an unusually inspired late-nineteenth-century composition firmly anchored in the European orchestral tradition. The first movement is cast in a sonata form introduced by a slow, brooding introduction, but Dvořák unifies these two sections—indeed, the symphony as a whole—through the cunning use of thematic recollection: In this case, the music of the introduction seems a not-yet-fully-formed expression of the heroic, rather Wagnerian, horn theme at the outset of the Allegro molto portion. Though the movement’s structure follows familiar contours, the layout of its tonality does not lack for interesting details. That horn theme, for example, is first heard in its complete form in the key of E-flat minor, a semitone below the overriding key of E minor; the sidestep that rectifies the movement to its proper key adds an element of psychological uplift. The ensuing themes are not less evocative: a dance-tune (introduced by flute and oboe) curiously reminiscent of “Turkey in the Straw” and another that evokes, for many, the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

The second movement, Largo, opens with a series of dense chords before settling into the key of D-flat major for one of the most famous English horn tunes ever written, one that combines tenderness, nostalgia, and a sense of resolute hopefulness. It sounds for all the world like a folk song, and that is what generations of listeners have taken it to be, especially once the title “Goin’ Home” became attached to it. In fact, the song “Goin’ Home” followed the symphony by three decades when, in 1922, William Arms Fisher crafted words to fit Dvořák’s tune. Fisher (1861-1948), who had studied with Dvořák at the National Conservatory and eventually was his teaching assistant there, became a notable music historian, editor, and author. An enthusiast for Dvořák’s ideas about melding authentic American songs with the techniques of classical composition, Fisher made numerous concert settings of African-American pieces, which he gathered into a collection and published in 1926. This helped confuse the issue, but the fact is that “Goin’ Home” is strictly a “pseudo-spiritual.” The music gives way to a bucolic section that seems to shimmer with birdsong, after which the English horn returns with its plaintive melody. This Largo was the first of two movements that Dvořák suggested were derived from Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” though precisely which section of that epic it portrays has been a matter of debate.

The composer was more precise when it came to the third movement. This Scherzo, he said, relates to the section of Longfellow’s poem that describes the dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis: “It was he who in his frenzy / Whirled these drifting sands together, / On the dunes of Nagow Wudjoo, / When, among the guests assembled, / He so merrily and madly / Danced at Hiawatha's wedding, / Danced the Beggar's Dance to please them.” The dance is introduced, most curiously, by a motif Dvořák has borrowed quite unashamedly from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A pastoral trio ensues. If you weren’t forewarned that this was taking place “on the shores of Gitche Gumee, on the dunes of Nagow Wudjoo, by the shining Big-Sea-Water,” you might reasonably assume the scene was somewhere in Upper Austria. The “Beethoven’s Ninth” motif returns as a transition back to the main Scherzo theme, and the proceedings die away in a coda during which we hear reminiscences of themes from the first movement.

Recollections of earlier music also haunt the final movement, which evolves out of a march-theme that seems perfectly appropriate to a symphony straight out of central Europe. We tend to think of Dvořák as broadly resembling Brahms in musical inclinations, and although there is plenty here that is Brahms-like (particularly the Brahms of the Hungarian Dances), Dvořák’s finale also reminds us of its composer’s early infatuation with Wagner. The musical world of Dvořák’s day had become polarized between what was viewed as Brahmsian conservatism and Wagnerian experimentalism. One of the great achievements of Dvořák’s late music, and certainly of the Symphony From the New World, is the extent to which it bridges that divide.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Rafael Kubelík conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Eloquence)  |  Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic (Teldec)  |  Václav Talich conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in a recording made in 1951 (Supraphon)  |  George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (CBS Great Performances)  |  István Kertész conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca)

Reading: Dvořák, by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler (Marion Boyars)  |  Dvořák and his World, edited by Michael Beckerman (Princeton)  |  Dvořák in America 1892-1895, edited by John C. Tibbetts (Amadeus)  |  New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life, edited by Michael Beckerman (Norton) 

(December 2015)