Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, and strings
In 1892, when Dvořák agreed to direct the National Conservatory in New York, he understood that his position involved more than running a music school. He wrote to a Czech friend, “The Americans expect great things of me. I am to show them the way into the Promised Land, the realm of a new, independent art, in short a national style of music! … This will certainly be a great and lofty task, and I hope that with God’s help I shall succeed in it. I have plenty of encouragement to do so.”
Dvořák recognized two main sources that could provide the indigenous flavor for an “American” school of composition: Native American and African-American traditions. His understanding of Indian culture was indirect, gleaned from his reading of Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and from “Native” melodies that appeared in heavily edited songbooks published by Eurocentric scholars. Dvořák did have the benefit of more direct contact with African-American music through a student at the conservatory, Harry Burleigh, a singer and composer who had learned spirituals from his grandfather, a freed slave. Burleigh sang the spirituals to Dvořák, who saw in those melodies a particularly rich wellspring for American concert music.
Dvořák noted essential similarities between Indian and African-American musical traditions, qualities he recognized in Scottish tunes as well. The shared trait among these styles – and folk music from around the world, to a varying extent – was the use of the pentatonic mode, as opposed to the major and minor scales of European art music. (An easy way to hear the contrast is on a piano: the black keys form a pentatonic mode, while the white keys form a major scale.)
Dvořák let those folk influences filter through the symphony he composed in New York. The work debuted at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Anton Seidl. At the time, Dvořák numbered the symphony as his fifth, having disavowed several early works. It was actually his ninth and final symphony, and modern practice reflects that numbering. The subtitle, “From the New World,” was Dvořák’s own.
Despite the subtitle, the symphony’s first movement is as much from the “Old World” as from the New. The main theme, a leaping motive sounded by the horns at the start of the Allegro molto section, becomes a building block for adventurous exploration, appearing in this movement and later in the symphony. This musical treatment owes more to Brahms (who mentored Dvořák) and Beethoven than American folk music. A contrasting major-key theme, first heard in the flute, introduces a more pastoral flavor.
The Largo second movement reflects the spirituals Dvořák learned from his African-American student, and it provides the English horn with its most endearing solo passage in the orchestral repertoire. Later, with the addition of lyrics by William Arms Fisher, this quasi-spiritual theme became the song “Goin’ Home.”
The third movement fulfills the traditional function of a symphonic scherzo, in the mold of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, while also tying the work together with quotations from the two preceding movements. According to Dvořák, a wedding scene from The Song of Hiawatha served as inspiration for this festive music.
The finale, like the opening movement, blends “Old World” themes and construction with glints of modal “New World” material, including sophisticated juxtapositions of the symphony’s earlier highlights. As the Czech composer duly acknowledged, “I should never have written the symphony ‘just so’ if I hadn’t seen America.”
Notes provided by Columbia Artists Management. © 2016 Aaron Grad