Antonin Dvorak New World Symphony Analysis Essay

New World Symphony, byname of Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95: From the New World, orchestral work by Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák, a major milestone in the validation of American—or “New World”—music and lore as source material for classical composition. Written while Dvořák was living and working in New York City, the symphony purportedly incorporated the composer’s reflections on his American setting. The piece premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893.

In 1891 the noted American patron of the arts Jeannette Meyer Thurber embarked on a mission to find a director for the National Conservatory of Music, the school that she had founded in New York City. Determined to fill the position with a person of global reputation whose own prestige would boost that of the conservatory, she offered the attractive annual salary of $15,000. Although many Americans would have leapt at the opportunity, there were no suitably qualified candidates, largely because classical music was still in its adolescence in the United States. Thurber ultimately offered the job to Dvořák, who at that time was a music professor at the Prague Conservatory in Austria-Hungary (now in the Czech Republic). As a skilled composer of international renown—a conservative late Romantic who specialized in lush symphonic works and chamber music rather like that of his mentor Johannes Brahms—Dvořák had much to share with aspiring musicians. Moreover, according to his colleagues, he had a flair for teaching.

Dvořák accepted Thurber’s offer and moved to the United States in 1892, but he was uncomfortable in the urban American setting, and he disliked being absent from his homeland. His new address of 327 East 17th Street in New York City seemed a poor substitute for the rolling hills of Bohemia. Thus, Dvořák terminated his contract after three years to return to Prague.

Dvořák’s American sojourn was brief but productive, and it yielded the piece that widely became regarded as his signature work—the four-movement Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, better known as the New World Symphony. The piece premiered with the New York Philharmonic in a program shared with Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major and Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A reporter for the New York Herald who had attended the last rehearsal before the premiere observed that the new symphony was “a noble composition…of heroic proportions” and compared the work favourably to the compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

Dvořák’s writings reveal that he admired the beauty of African Americanspirituals and plantation songs of the American South and that he advised other composers also to study them for inspiration. Many musicologists have speculated that, at least in part, the melodies of the New World Symphony were based on such spirituals. The second theme in the first movement, for instance, is to some ears reminiscent of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and the gently lyrical second movement is popularly perceived as an orchestral setting of the spiritual “Goin’ Home.” However, “Goin’ Home” has no organic tie to the South or to plantation life; it is Dvořák’s own melody, written specifically for the New World Symphony and later given words by one of his students.

In addition to the songs of the African American South, Dvořák was fascinated by Native American tradition—or, at least, by his imagination of it. He acknowledged that certain segments of the symphony were inspired by The Song of Hiawatha, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that recounted the tale of Hiawatha, the legendary Onondaga chief. A dancelike passage in the third-movement scherzo supposedly evokes the Native American wedding feast depicted in Longfellow’s poem. Ironically, it was unlikely that Dvořák actually heard Native American music until after the symphony was completed; he had summered in a Czech community in Iowa, but by then there were few Native Americans left in the area. Whether tapping Native American or African American musical styles (he made no distinction between the two), Dvořák avoided strict quotation. As he explained to one quizzical European conductor, “I tried to write only in the spirit of those national American melodies.”

Aside from any actual or attributed links to American music, the New World Symphony notably employed stylistic elements that were suggestive of Bohemian, German, French, Scottish, and other Old World sources. The theme from the third movement, for example, resembles Dvořák’s earlier Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 (1878), which was inspired by the rhythms and spirit of Bohemian folk music. The symphony also exhibits cyclic form (having movements that are linked motivically or thematically), a structure that was popular among European composers—most prominently, Beethoven—throughout the 19th century. In its character, then, Dvořák’s New World Symphony was an expression of both the Old World and the New, and as such it enjoyed transoceanic appeal.

Marin Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in excerpts from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9: "From the New World."

1. 'Adagio -- Allegro molto' (excerpt)

3. 'Molto vivace' (excerpt)

4. 'Allegro con fuoco' (excerpt)

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak crossed the Atlantic in September 1892 to direct the National Conservatory of Music in New York. During his stay, he composed the "New World" Symphony. Getty Images hide caption

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As the symphony opens, Dvorak's French horn blast signals the unknown

A "main theme" emerges in the first movement

The haunting melody from the "Largo" was turned into the song "Goin' Home"

Newfound urgency in the finale

The symphony's melodies are transformed at the end

Hear examples from Dvorak's symphony noted by Alsop in her essay.

The Brooklyn Bridge, as Antonin Dvorak would have seen it when he lived and worked in New York in the 1890s. Getty Images hide caption

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The Brooklyn Bridge, as Antonin Dvorak would have seen it when he lived and worked in New York in the 1890s.

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Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, the New World Symphony, is played so often that it runs the risk of sounding hackneyed. That fact became painfully obvious to me during a recent visit to Japan, when I heard the symphony's beautiful English horn melody in a cheesy, electronic rendition, signaling "all clear to walk" at a bustling Sapporo intersection.

As I returned to Dvorak's popular symphony recently, I was struck by how incredibly fresh the music really is. I was reminded of how Johannes Brahms was moved by Dvorak's melodic gifts, as well as his ability to spin a seemingly infinite number of variations on a tune. This, combined with Dvorak's Bohemian heritage, results in music unlike any other composer's.

Symphony No. 9 is nicknamed New World because Dvorak wrote it during the time he spent in the U.S. in the 1890s. His experiences in America (including his discovery of African-American and Native-American melodies) and his longing for home color his music with mixed emotions. There's both a yearning that simmers and an air of innocence.

The music, for me, evokes images. As the symphony opens, I picture Dvorak at the stern of the ship that carries him to America, away from his country. As the land drifts out of sight, he is suddenly jarred by the thought of the unknown with a blast from the French horn.

This slow introduction conveys many emotions — sadness, fear, suspense, even a ray of hope — in its brief 23 measures, until Dvorak eventually chooses which main melody will take over the main part of the movement. A nostalgic folk tune provides simplicity and variety, leading to the second theme, which is really a variation of what came before, illustrating Dvorak's inventiveness with melody.

The New World Symphony's best-known melody surfaces in the "Largo" movement, with its aching English horn solo. It was later adapted into the song "Goin' Home" by Harry Burleigh, a black composer whom Dvorak befriended while in New York. But I'm always moved by the church-like chords that come before that now-famous tune. In a stroke of innovative genius, Dvorak brings these opening chords back at the climax of the finale, where all the melodies from the symphony, reappear, transformed by the journey.

In the scherzo movement that follows, Dvorak explores the dance rhythms and melodies of his heritage. They feel new and fresh, yet familiar at the same time. It contrasts with the finale, which begins with a newfound urgency, setting up the nobility and majesty of the main melody heard in the brass.

The New World Symphony is for me, above all, a journey — Dvorak's journey to America, getting to know its people. But more importantly, it's Dvorak's own spiritual and emotional journey: from his intense longing for his beloved Bohemia to the thrill of the "new world" and its varied peoples, to thoughts of going home.

When all the melodies return at the end of the symphony, I feel as though Dvorak's American adventure has come full circle. The end reminds me of an old film where the last scene is frozen and the circle of the lens closes in until a black screen is all that remains.

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