Symphony No. 9, “New World”
For a brief period in his early 50s, Antonín Dvořák left his home in Vysoká, Czechoslovakia – and his position as composition professor at the Prague Conservatory – to oversee the newly-founded New York National Conservatory. He came as an international celebrity, having made a name and successful body of work in Europe, and he brought his cachet to a hungry “new world” at the infancy of its high culture.
The composer’s ninth and final symphony was overtly inspired by his time in America (1892 – 1895), an attempt at harvesting our native musical seeds in the soil of his established style. (Dvořák, like Ives, wove the folk tunes of his homeland into a contemporary, symphonic tapestry.) He seized on two local kernels, that of Native Americans and of slaves, albeit loosely and colored by his Slavic sensibility. He knew Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, and was inspired by the funeral of the protagonist’s lover (Minnehaha) when he wrote his Largo, and by the dance of the Indians when writing his Scherzo. The composer never claimed any ethnomusicological accuracy in his depiction of Native Americans. In his introduction to the piece, he wrote: “I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of Indian music, and using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestral color.”
The New York Conservatory may have been the vanity project of a wealthy socialite, Jeanette Thurber, but it was actually quite socially progressive. All races and nationalities were openly welcome, and tuition was generously matched to whatever students could afford. (Dvořák encouraged his students to mine the traditions of America’s mistreated natives and slaves in their compositions, as he had done with the folk tunes of Bohemia.) One student who benefitted from the school’s unusually equal treatment was Henry Burleigh, a Pennsylvania musician and the grandson of a former slave. Burleigh worked as a copyist for Dvořák, who encouraged him to sing the African-American spirituals and plantation songs he had inherited. The spirit of that heritage found a home in the symphony’s serene second movement, and Dvořák even acknowledged the timbre of Burleigh’s voice by assigning the melody to the English horn.
The symphony was written in the spring of 1893, and premiered in New York that December, quickly becoming the composer’s most loved and most performed musical offspring. He soon returned to his home country, and many critics hear as much nostalgia for Vysoká in his “New World” as any uniquely American flavor – a bias Dvořák would likely concede.
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.