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ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Symphony No. 9 in E minor,

“From the New World,” Op. 95, B.178 (1892-93)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

I. Adagio - Allegro molto

II. Largo

III. Molto vivace

IV. Allegro con fuoco


"A squad of about thirty men took charge of the Government building about 3 oʻclock this afternoon armed with muskets and a belt of cartridges. They lined the walks in front of the building…It is reported that before dusk the American flag will be hoisted over the Palace." The Dailey Bulletin, January 17, 1893


Printed in Honolulu’s longest running newspaper the Dailey Bulletin (The Star-Advertiser today), the events of January 17, 1893, paint a vivid record of the Hawaiian Kingdom's final moments, its overthrow aided by forces from the "New World." In that same year, Eleanor Wright Prendergast (1865-1902) composed for members of the Royal Hawaiian Band a song of protest and resistance, Kaulana Nā Pua (Famous are the Flowers). In Chicago, the American composer John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) titled his newly composed march after an American symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell. History isn't without a sense of irony that these musical works were written in 1893, the same year Dvořák completed his unique perspective of American musical identity, Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."



A composer in demand, Dvořák's native Bohemian culture found a home in the bountiful melodies and lively rhythms of his symphonic works. The composer's predilection for transplanting folk music into concert works caught the ear of Jeanette Meyers Thurber (1850-1946). Thurber founded the National Conservatory in New York on the principle that a country fosters its national brand of music. For Thurber, Dvořák was the composer to do just that and offered him a job. As a Czech composer, Dvořák must have been perplexed by Thurbur's proposition that a new national musical style should come from a foreigner. He rejected Thurber's offer of the school's directorship several times. Eventually, he acquiesced to a $15,000 salary ($345,000 in 2022), triple a sitting senator's annual paycheck and 25 times what he usually earned.


Arriving with his wife Anna and two children in New York, Dvořák served as the conservatory director from 1892-95. His duties included daily instruction and several concerts. In the hallways, Dvořák caught the sound of spirituals emanating from the voice of Harry T. Burleigh, a 26-year-old African-American student sweeping floors to pay for tuition. Taken by Burleigh's tunes, Dvořák found the source for his new American symphony, he writes, "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music." 



Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, work on the Ninth Symphony commenced soon after arriving in New York. For the summer, Dvořák's live-in secretary, Josef Jan Kovařík, invited the family to his hometown in Spilleville, Iowa (108 miles north of Cedar Rapids). Iowa proved to be a fertile composing environment; the symphony was completed in May, and soon after, the "American" string quartet and quintet. Premiered on December 16, 1893, the symphony "From the New World" was a sensational tour de force, solidifying its popularity even 129 years later. Its triumph also set the stage for an everlasting discussion and debate of "What is American music?" and "What is American about the New World Symphony?" If there are answers and metaphors in the music, Dvořák's themes hold the secrets.



The "New World" begins with the sound of the Old World. The introduction echoes Brahms; both knew each other and share the same E-minor key for their final symphonies. Little of this introduction returns in the movement; still, a kernel of the primary theme rises and falls in the cellos with sea-faring whiplash, glimpses of Madame Liberty's freedom torch beaconing through the tides.  


Turning to African-American spirituals and Native American folk music, Dvořák recognized similarities with music from other parts of the world, the rhythms of Scottish music (Scotch Snap), and the pentatonic scale so ubiquitous in folk music. The themes of the exposition are plenty. Echoes of the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (in the opening horn call) are answered with Bohemian swagger in the winds. The flute and oboe theme in G-minor channels modality, the essence of Native American music seasoned with the rhythms of Czech polka. The flute's closing G-major theme, a tender spiritual-kissed respite, concludes the exposition. After the development, Dvořák returns to the themes, but they do not return to the home key of E-minor. The result is a recapitulation of prolonged restlessness that won't find a sense of home until the coda, when all the themes unite into a vortex of an E-minor fury.  



The Largo begins in D-flat major. The implications of this key are extraordinary. The symphony's home key, E-minor, is related to the key of G-major; they use the same seven pitches; they share the same musical genes and are relatives. However, D-flat major only shares one note, one gene, with E-minor; these two keys are continents apart. How fitting that Dvořák chooses a key so far from home for a movement that would come to signify homesickness. 


Brass chords of purple mountain majesties open the movement. Out of 1217 measures of music, the tuba only plays for nine of them, here, adding a tone color to the chorale not found anywhere else in the work. English horn enters soon after with the famous tune, often misconceived as a spiritual, called "Goin' Home;" it was Dvořák's melody that became a spiritual. With the movement's growing popularity, Burleigh set the tune to words. Its opening verse, a homesick aria:


"Going home, going home, 

I am going home

Quiet like, some still day

I am going home."


Before the final reprieve, a bounty of melodies with Slavic, Germanic, and English flavors flow in succession, a daydream of simply being somewhere else. Then, at the movement's loudest moment, Dvořák awakens, and music from the first movement re-appears. This cyclical event happens in all the movements, with former themes mingling with the newly created, a unity binding all the movements into a united symphony.



The Scherzo is often framed as having the most vital link to Native American themes. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (1855), an epic tale in the Homeric sense, had a strong impact on the composer. Hiawatha was an actual person, a leader of the Iroquois Confederacy, but his name is known more through legend. Dvořák planned to compose a Hiawatha-inspired work drawn from this movement's material but the work never materialized. The passage that inspired Dvořák frames the third movement as a dance: 


"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."

(Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha)


Dvořák avoids quoting actual folk songs, opting for original melodies that imitate and capture the spirit and rhythms of their sources. This technique is true of the composer's Slavonic Dances, as is here, with the opening scherzo melody resembling the contour of a Yaquis Deer Dance. The middle minuet adopts a rustic air, then a waltz with Viennese seasoning, Strauss vintage.



The finale's opening seven bars, with its creeping half-steps, is notorious for having strong similarities with music composed 82 years later, the shark theme from Jaws (1975). Yet, as the conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein points out, this section is similar to Mussorgorsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Baba Yaga) (1874). With a Russian weight at the start, the primary theme in the trumpet and horns embody a Wagnerian force. The movement's new themes and all the other themes from earlier movements are all mixed in. The finale becomes a melting pot, a united nation of themes, which comes to the crux of the "New World" symphony's secrets.



Dvořák turned to the nation's indigenous music and spirituals as the music that mattered, not the parlor and minstrel songs, or the Sousa marches that defined the popular American brand. If there is a message in the "New World" symphony, it may be of a symphonic nation of themes drawn from its roots, woven together in a field of melodic and rhythmic diversity, and united in their common traits. The symphony amplifies the hopeful and ambitious American spirit, but there is a question Dvořák seems to pose at the very last moment. The 1890s saw the U.S. move towards a more aggressive posture in foreign policy. The 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom marked the first in a series of U.S. expansions; Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico followed in 1898. 


The final minutes of the work is symphonic music at its most thrilling, and it could have ended that way. But Dvořák instructs in Italien on the last bar, lunga corona (long fermata), as winds, horns, and trumpets die away with an E-major whisper, a gesture that seems to ponder its existence. If there is a final question, perhaps it is a warning of cautious optimism for a nation, 117 years young, exerting a more dominant presence as a global superpower. The score runs approximately 41 minutes and calls for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, and strings.


Antonín Dvořák was born on September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves in the Austrian Empire, and died on May 1, 1904, in Prague.

© 2020 Michael-Thomas Foumai

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