31 Oct 2016

Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”

Antonin Dvořák (1841 – 1904): Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”

Written by Michael Clive

The strange performance history of Dvořák’s popular ninth symphony is a mix of instant success and lingering disappointment. Contemporary newspaper accounts of the premiere, which took place before Christmas of 1893 at Carnegie Hall, evoke a scene of clamorous tribute that was repeated again and again. “There was no getting out of it,” Dvořák said in describing the ovation to his publisher, “and I had to show myself willy-nilly.” Yet despite its inescapable nickname, this was not an “American” symphony, but rather a symphony “from the New World.” Yes, Dvořák was deeply inspired by American musical sources in composing it. But as a Czech nationalist and visionary music educator, he believed strongly that composers should discover their own musical roots in the cultural sources of their respective homelands. During his stay in New York City from 1892 to 1895 he discovered an abundance of diverse ethnic sources lying fallow in America and a potentially magnificent classical tradition waiting to be born. Not even his passionate advocacy and the public’s euphoric embrace of his ninth symphony could bring acceptance of these ideas—at least, not in Dvořák’s lifetime.

Dvořák was, with Smetana and Janácek, one of the three principal composers of the Czech nationalist movement, and was the one who achieved the greatest international prominence. He had come to New York at the invitation of Jeannette Thurber to serve as director of the National Conservatory of Music. Hearing the richness of what we now call “roots music,” he was baffled by the American intelligentsia’s dismissal of folk music as primitive. In interviews he insisted that the future of American music should be founded on what were called “Negro melodies,” a classification that also included American Indian tunes. “These can be the foundation of a serious an original school of composition, to be developed in the United States, he told an interviewer in the New York Herald. “These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”

What to Listen For

Drawing upon Indian songs and African-American spirituals, this symphony broadly captures the spirit of both traditions without specifically quoting individual melodies. Listeners everywhere recognize the distinctively American sound in “From the New World” as soon as they hear it. The symphony opens with a portentous adagio that gives way to a quick allegro, with a minor key that seems to communicate the excitement of discovery and unknown frontiers. The emphasis on brasses and woodwinds, as opposed to strings, gives the movement a fresh sound that separates it from European idioms. The Czech nationalist propensity for sketching landscape in music is evident in this movement, but the landscape itself—with its rocks, crags and rushing waters—is like a musical evocation of the heroic landscapes by the Hudson River School of American painters such as Alfred Bierstadt. These artists were active at the time Dvořák composed the symphony and were well known to him. They successfully integrated the same esthetic elements he sought to include in the symphony: a dramatic evocation of America’s unique heritage, a sense of its natural beauty, and an epic, virginal wildness combined with formal execution embodying the refinements of European academic training. Why shouldn’t Dvořák, with a new world of folk music at his command, match the visual vocabulary of the Hudson River School’s towering cliffs and misty rivers with folk and folk-like melodies?

The first of these melodies—to some listeners, at least—is a solo theme for flute in the first movement that may be suggestive of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” But it is in the largo in the second movement, which has gained acceptance as the song “Goin’ Home,” that we begin to hear it most clearly. Whether it existed in song form before the symphony was written has not been settled beyond doubt; we do know that in gaining knowledge of the African American legacy of folk song in America—including the deeply moving “sorrow songs” combining the themes of death, loss, and physical return to the Creator—Dvořák worked with a remarkable African American named Harry Burleigh, who knew this music firsthand and whose blind grandfather was a former slave. “Goin’ Home” certainly has all the characteristics of these songs. It is likely (but not certain) that while working on the symphony, Dvořák demonstrated the melody for Burleigh, who later executed it as a song with the lyricist William Arms Fisher.

The sadness and the transcendent quality of “Goin’ Home” was perfectly suited to another of Dvořák’s primary sources for the Symphony No. 9, Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha.” In the symphony’s second movement, a quiet largo, this sad theme provides context for the dramatically poignant death of Minnehaha as it unfolds within her father Nokomis’ wigwam with Nokomis on watch and Hiawatha separated from her in the forest. Is the symphony specifically programmatic, a musical retelling of Longfellow’s poem?

While the idea of the sorrow song supports this idea in a general way, the frenzied scherzo that follows the second movement largo seems much more specific. The musicologist Joseph Horowitz relates it to the dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis at Hiawatha’s wedding, and Hiawatha’s pursuit through the forest; wild and percussive, its whirling rhythms match both the American Indian

sources Dvořák studied in the U.S. and the driving metrics of Longfellow’s poem, underlined by re-emergent timpani. It can also suggest Hiawatha’s own feelings of grief and expiation. But when Horowitz matches specific lines of Hiawatha’s dance to the music of the scherzo, and hearing their juxtaposition is irresistible, one cannot escape the conclusion that Dvořák wrote the movement as a literal dance for Pau-Puk-Keewis. Even more convincing is Horowitz’s matching of scherzo passages to Hiawatha’s chase through the woods and climactic battle with Pau-Puk-Keewis, though this music — like the rest of the symphony —can be fully enjoyed as abstract expression for its own sake.

The final movement is an allegro that moves from the scherzo’s E minor into a triumphant E major, the first sustained major section in the symphony. Here Dvořák seems to shift his gaze upward from a single, poignant tale to a distant horizon, presenting us with a nation’s destiny. There is a fateful quality to the clarion brasses and thundering percussion as the symphony draws to a close; in it, contemporary listeners heard a musical portrait of a young country that was youthful but vigorous and bold, ready for a place of leadership in the community of nations.


©Michael Clive