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At-A-Glance

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Composed: 1893

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

About this Piece

Has there ever been a work so beloved, so recognized, and yet so impossible to give a fair hearing as the “New World” Symphony? By the mid-20th century it was so much a part of American culture that it was familiar to people who had never even heard it. So much in it has been quoted and rehashed that it now sounds like a cliché.

This ultimate piece of Americana actually grew out of an attempt to create an American style of composition. To this end, a visionary patron of the arts named Jeanette Thurber founded a National Conservatory in New York and engaged Dvořák as its director. Dvořák arrived with his wife and two oldest children in September 1892, and threw himself into teaching, composing, and absorbing America. 

Since Dvořák was a “nationalist” who grounded his own music in Czech folk tradition, he was naturally curious about the folk music of America. In interviews with New York newspapers, he opined that the music of native Americans and Black people would be the real source of folk music on which to base an American national style. His knowledge of “Indian” music would have come from published collections, filtered through the ears of white editors. He would have come to know black music from more varied sources. He made a special point of having Harry Burleigh, a black National Conservatory student who later became famous as a publisher of spirituals, sing real black music to him.

Dvořák began the symphony in late 1892 and finished it the following May. The first performance, in New York on December 16, 1893, was a major event, with a public rehearsal and much advance press attention. Its reception was a major triumph, and it occasioned much enthusiastic discussion from the musical intelligentsia about just how American it really was. In the ensuing century, little has changed: the symphony’s popularity has endured, and talking about how much the “New World” Symphony sounded like what American music was before American music started to sound like the “New World” Symphony remains a favorite pastime.

Clearly there is a lot of Bohemia in the Symphony. Dvořák was not going to change his style in nine months. But it also sounds different from his previous works. Dvořák wrote to a friend in Bohemia that the Symphony “will be fundamentally different from my earlier ones. Anyone with a ‘nose’ for these things will detect the influence of America.”

But many observers, nasally challenged or not, have disagreed. Perhaps the most extreme view was voiced by Leonard Bernstein, who devoted a chapter of his 1966 book The Infinite Variety of Music to arguing that there was virtually nothing American about the Symphony. Bernstein examined each theme of the symphony, identified whatever aspect of it that was thought to be American, and pointed out that there was nothing exclusively American about that aspect. The argument proves too much: Bernstein could similarly have “proved” that there is nothing American about hot dogs because they are made from a sausage that originated in Frankfurt. But his views were, as always, insightful and provocative.

Dvořák insisted that while he took inspiration from folk music, he borrowed no actual melodies. The Symphony is remarkable gave it words and turned it into a song called “Goin’ Home” that was popular for many years. Bernstein, again overstating his case, noted: “It evokes for us the picture of f ield hands, plantation workers crooning in the moonlight, Gone with the Wind, what have you – but only because we have heard it so constantly played or sung, in the movies or on the radio or wherever, in practically every southern situation. (If we were to put Czech words to it, it would sound fully as Czech as American, or with Chinese words it would sound Chinese.)” for its sheer number of memorable tunes: nearly all of them are the sort that you hum going home from the concert. For just this reason, the Symphony sometimes gives short shrift to symphonic development: it needs less compositional craft because the sheer melodic invention is so inspired.

Everything Dvořák touched here turned to gold. Even when he dealt with a practical structural problem – how to go from E minor, the key in which the first movement ends, to the Largo’s distant D-flat major without jolting the listener’s ear – his solution was haunting: the seven magical chords that begin the second movement are unforgettable, though they appear only four times, including a curtain call in the finale. It’s easy to conclude that Dvořák kept bringing themes back in later movements not for purposes of unity, but because he couldn’t bear to part with them.

Several sources close to Dvořák said that the slow movement was inspired by episodes in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, which Dvořák had read in a Czech translation and, at Mrs. Thurber’s suggestion, was considering as the subject of an opera. Some of the movement may even have started as sketches for such an opera. But the sources do not agree on which part(s) of Hiawatha Dvořák may have had in mind, and the principal theme, the English horn’s famous song, is not “Indian” at all. It has the character of a black spiritual, but it betrays its high-art origins when it modulates into the subdominant, a bit of harmonic sophistication uncommon in real spirituals. Years later, one of Dvořák’s National Conservatory students, a white man named William Fisher, gave it words and turned it into a song called “Goin’ Home” that was popular for many years. Bernstein, again overstating his case, noted: “It evokes for us the picture of field hands, plantation workers crooning in the moonlight, Gone with the Wind, what have you – but only because we have heard it so constantly played or sung, in the movies or on the radio or wherever, in practically every southern situation. (If we were to put Czech words to it, it would sound fully as Czech as American, or with Chinese words it would sound Chinese.)”

Dvořák said that the Scherzo was inspired by Longfellow’s description of the dance at Hiawatha’s wedding feast. But its material is the most characteristically Czech in the symphony. The rhythm of the woodwinds’ perky first theme is typical of the Czech language and is found in Czech folk songs. (There is nothing folky about the insistent rhythmic pull of three against two that yanks the theme along.) The lilting middle section could pass for one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances.

The finale begins as a normal sonata movement, but somewhere in the development becomes something else. Much of what it develops is thematic material from the first three movements. Finally, there’s that unmistakable boogie-woogie walking bass just before the final chords: is it a transformation of the first movement’s main theme, or had Dvořák actually heard some ragtime pianist? Either explanation is possible, historically speaking, but neither is probable. Genius is often hard to explain.

— Howard Posner