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

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

  1. Adagio – Allegro molto
  2. Largo
  3. Scherzo: Molto vivace
  4. Allegro con fuoco

Duration: 41'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2011, 2003

A.C. Grayling’s plans to open a private university may be a current controversy, but the idea is far from new.  In 1884 the wealthy American socialite Jeannette Thurber opened her National Conservatory of Music of America in New York.  Thurber was the daughter of Henry Meyers, a Danish immigrant violinist.  She studied at the Paris Conservatory and later married into money; thereafter she became one of the first important patrons of classical music in the United States.  Her ambition that the Conservatory should be the first of a nationwide franchise of educational institutions never came to pass.  Its founder’s declining energy meant that its activity declined rapidly after the First World War.  The stock market crash of 1929 effectively killed the institution, although it was not declared officially defunct until 1952.

However, for a brief period at the turn of the century the Conservatory was a beacon for music education in the United States.  Its aim was to make a musical education available to all, and Thurber made a particular point of encouraging disabled and African-American students; among the latter was the composer Harry T. Burleigh, now best remembered for his collections of spirituals.  To raise the profile of the institution, Mrs Thurber sought out the services of distinguished musicians.  Undoubtedly her biggest coup in this regard was appointing Antonín Dvořák as Director in 1892.

By the early 1890s Dvořák’s international reputation was secure, and his music was attracting increasing attention in the U.S.A.  So when the first director of the National Conservatory resigned in 1889, it was natural that Thurber should put a proposal to the famous Czech composer (although she apparently also considered a young Finnish composer called Jan Sibelius for the post).  Dvořák was excited by the prospects of taking on the job.   “The Americans expect great things of me,” he wrote to a friend, “and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music. If the small Czech nation can have such musicians, they say, why could they not too, when their country and people are so immense?”

His ideas about the possibility of a national American music were swayed quickly by one of his new pupils.  As well as studying at the Conservatory, Harry Burleigh was supplementing his income by working as a handyman there.  Dvořák’s first encounter with him was when he heard Burleigh singing spirituals as he cleaned the halls.  Dvořák was fascinated by what he heard, and insisted that Burleigh sing more to him and tell him about this music.  For Burleigh, such interest in music that most white society dismissed as barbaric was inspiring.  The two men established a close friendship that lasted until Dvořák’s death in 1904.

Such music struck a chord with Dvořák because of his fierce pride in his own Czech folk heritage.  “Nothing must be to low or too insignificant for the musician,” he wrote in an article in 1895.  “The music of the people is like a rare and lovely flower growing amidst encroaching weeds.  Thousands pass it, while others trample it under foot, and thus the chances are that it will perish before it is seen by the one discriminating spirit who will prize it above all else.”  Soon after his arrival in America and his encounter with Burleigh, he declared, “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States... They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”  Dvořák’s prediction was in a sense accurate, though in the detail he was wildly wrong.  He assumed that African-American music would be absorbed into the old European forms and techniques.  In fact what happened was the opposite: African-Americans imported elements of European harmony and form into their own tradition to create the definitive American music,  jazz.

Another important influence on Dvořák as he began to write his Ninth Symphony was Jeannette Thurber’s determination that Dvořák should write an opera based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha.   She even took him to see “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s Wild West show to stoke his enthusiasm. This may explain why, when the new symphony was performed, Dvořák declared that” the work was written under the direct influence of a serious study of the national music of the North American Indians,” although he qualified this by admitting, “I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies.”  He also declared in an interview that “I found that the music of the Negroes and of the Indians was practically identical.”  This extraordinary statement can only really be explained by the fact that Dvořák had not actually studied Native American music in any great detail (although he had been given access to a limited number of transcriptions of dubious merit).

Whatever the true extent of the local influences on the New World Symphony (a title bestowed by Thurber), it is evident that the composer’s own Bohemian roots exert at least as great, if not greater an influence.   The critic Henry Krehbiel observed that “Dr. Dvořák can no more divest himself of his nationality than the leopard change his spots.”  The slow movement may be inspired by Indians on the plains at night, and the Scherzo a portrait of Hiawatha’s wedding feast as he claimed, but Dvořák’s view of the New World is that of someone longing to return to the old one.  Homesickness eventually led him to resign in 1895 and return to Prague.  But regardless of the true extent of the American influence on his symphony, it has a vital legacy: what mattered was that Dvořák stood up and declared the value of these often dismissed traditions.

Note © 2011 by Peter Nagle

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