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Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor “From the New World,” written in 1893, stands to be one of the most popular and influential symphonies of all time. Dvorak wrote several pieces during his time in America, but his “New World Symphony” stands out the most as it was heavily influenced by so called “negro melodies” and Native American tunes that Dvorak claimed was to be the basis of future American folk music. Dvorak himself said, “These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil.” referring to the rhythms and melodies of African Americans and Native Americans. This symphony would prove to stir debate on what American music should be, and over time solidifies itself as uniquely American in sound, establishing a precedent for America’s national music.
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Select themes from Symphony No. 9 would later have lyrics added posthumously, most famously his theme “Goin’ Home,” to become further entrenched in American folk music since the tunes no longer needed instruments to be played, but could be sung, allowing the piece to take on another new life in American culture in the 1920s. The end of each movement was met with massive applause at the premier at Carnegie Hall, breaking the custom of holding applause between movements to be saved for the finale. After the premiere, it would eventually have a very successful debut in Chicago which was further praised as “our American symphony” in the 1894 periodical “The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music” with passages like “in reference to Dvorak’s symphony, which is both the study and story of our Republic.” and “America owes a debt of gratitude to this great composer, who has apparently settled among us” from the article “‘From the New World,’ Dvorak’s Symphony.: A Notable Event in Chicago Music Circles.” The symphony’s importance hasn’t diminished over longer periods of time. A tape recording was brought by Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission moon landing, and is presently in high demand to be performed. Most recently in 2017, the Ukraine’s national orchestra was showcasing Dvorak’s symphony in the United States in a small Kansas town. In an article from “The Kansas City Star” about the event, it was noted that “Anytime classical fans are polled about their favorite works, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’ is always near the top of the list. With gorgeous themes that sound both Bohemian and American.” Over a century has passed since the premier of the symphony and it is still celebrated as an American work. While it is not uncommon for the classical works to remain popular, it is important to consider that after so many years of review Dvorak’s symphony “From the New World” is still talked about and widely accepted as uniquely American.
Dvorak and his family came to the United States on a contract with the New York Conservatory in September 1892, staying for about two and a half years until 1895. Dvorak would be paid to hold rehearsals and teach composition and instrumentation, though one of America’s first major economic crises hit in 1893 known as the “Panic of 1893” and the conservatory was not exempt, resulting in Dvorak being paid only about half of his contracts salary. Despite not receiving the agreed upon amount, he remained in the position at the conservatory and did not fight for the rest of his promised wages which would have totalled around fifteen thousand dollars according to the article “Dvorak and New York.” Jeannette Thurber sought out Dvorak in particular to create a national music since most American composers were studying in Germany, resulting in German sounding music. Thurber chose Dvorak to direct her conservatory with the hopes of creating a draw to keep American composers in America, and to build the reputation of her school.
As an outsider, Dvorak was surprised and able to fully appreciate the “negro melodies” and rhythms from the likes of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Deep River” when he heard them for the first time without any racial bias. Parts of these tunes were adapted into sections of Dvorak’s symphony “From the New World.” In an article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “New World Symphony and Discord,” Joseph Horowitz states “In America, Dvorak pushed for a broad understanding of music — its sources, its audience, its relationship to culture and society. Ultimately he saw music as a necessary means for defining America…” and “no American composer could have validated black culture as Dvorak would.” Dvorak’s unique position as a fairly famous visitor to the United States tasked with creating and or finding a national sound says a lot about the local attitude towards classical music and music in general; showcasing the lack of interest in creating original American music by the United States’ own composers. The majority of the American composers were focused on learning the types and styles of music from Europe and failed to create their own sound. Dvorak used the melodies he heard, which only so happened to be from mostly Native Americans and African Americans, because those groups didn’t adopt another culture’s music, but had created their own. Dvorak was one of the first to realize the merit and importance these melodies and rhythms would and did possess in American culture.
Though the critics and viewers in New York and at the premiere highly praised Dvorak’s work and ingenuity as we saw Chicago would later echo; that same sentiment was absent for critics in Boston, namely Philip Hale. The main subject of debate between the different trains of thought was whether or not Dvorak’s music was truly American, to which New York Times critic H.J. Henderson wrote “If those songs are not national, then there is no such thing as national music.” speaking of the slave song melodies and the feature of “Hiawatha” in the second movement “Largo” of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9. The flipside of the debate made by Hale focused on race calling Dvorak a “negrophile” and schoughed at the thought that African Americans and Native Americans could represent the United States at all, let alone enough to be the basis of a new national music or to characterize it as an “American School.” Hale further added that “The negro was not inherently musical” and that the songs Dvorak attributed to African Americans were rather sung by white women on plantations originally. An article “The Negro’s Songs” drafted in a 1926 periodical by Gilbert Seldes refers to Hale’s remarks and adds that although some may agree with Hale, “It is universally agreed, I take it, that the purely African contribution is in rhythm” meaning that even if the melodies that inspired Dvorak can’t be solely attributed to the African Americans, the rhythm is undoubtedly African American in origin qualifying the arguments made by Henderson and Hale.
After Dvorak’s death in 1904, his work inspired all forms of art, including painting. One such painting is that of Harold Weston in 1922, in a piece inscribed “Wilderness-Marcy, Dvorak New World Symphony, Largo.” The movement being referred to by the inscription is known for creating the feeling of openness that is associated with America’s breadth of land. Dvorak’s ability to convey this feeling in such a way that another artist can use it in another medium further demonstrates the reach and American spirit captured in the symphony. The melodies that Dvorak created for his symphony became synonymous with the American landscape as is furthered by the alternative title for Weston’s painting, “American Landscape: From Niagara to Yosemite” implying that Dvorak’s second movement inspires such images of America’s natural beauty. One of the very first record sleeves to be designed was for this symphony and was done by Alex Steinweiss in 1940. It pictures Native Americans hunting bison with a couple more natives outside of their tipis. The lettering “Dvorak New World Symphony” is on a pinned down animal skin. Not only did the second movement “Largo” inspire a scene of vast wilderness, but the symphony also clearly reflected Native American rhythms enough to give another artist the vision of them on a wide open background during a hunt.
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Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 has proved to be one of the most influential pieces of music from the Romantic Era. It had a somewhat controversial reception that ultimately resulted in the highest praise. The motifs Dvorak captured in his work are distinctly American, and when played to a first time listener they often associate this piece as sounding American due to his use of familiar folk tunes. This symphony remains one of the most famed and is used as a milestone for performers and conductors alike. For the question begged earlier of whether or not the piece was truly American is now laughable. There is hardly anything more American than a symphony written by an immigrant about his sights and sounds of natives and plantation songs. Dvorak was able to recognize that these songs held the only sound that was new to him and the land. To have a national music that came from another place isn’t quite appropriate, so he used exactly what was already there.
- Dvorak, Antonin. “Symphony No. 9 in E minor ‘From the New World.’” (1893).
- Horowitz, Joseph. “New World Symphony and Discord.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, 11 Jan. 2008, https://www-chronicle-com.ezproxy.library.unlv.edu/article/New-World-SymphonyDiscord/17761. Accessed May 6 2019.
- Goetz, Margaret. “‘From the New World,’ Dvorak’s Symphony.” The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music Dec. 1894. Proquest. Web. Accessed May 10 2019. <https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.unlv.edu/docview/137501419?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo>
- Gutmann, Peter. “Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony.” Classical Notes, http://www.classicalnotes.net/columns/newworld.html. Accessed May 6 2019.
- Neas, Patrick. “The Classical Beat: Ukraine National Orchestra to Showcase Verdi and Dvorak at Helzberg Hall.” The Kansas City Star, The McClatchy Company, 5 Mar. 2017, https://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/music-news-reviews/classical-music-dance/article135859568.html. Accessed May 8 2019.
- Seldes, Gilbert. “The Negro’s Songs.” The Dial; a Semi – monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information Mar. 1926. Proquest. Web. Accessed May 10 2019. <https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.unlv.edu/docview/89694543?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo>
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