Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World"

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Lakeview Orchestra will perform Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World” on Tuesday, February 5th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, Op. 95, B.178
Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904)

By 1891, at the age of 50, Antonín Dvořák was that rarest of living composers: successful, appreciated by a worldwide public, and relatively wealthy. Regarded by many as the second greatest living composer after Johannes Brahms, Dvořák wrote music with a nationalist Czech accent– an accent that made his work much more popular in Europe than that of Brahms, whose Romantic tone was sometimes ethereal. It was Dvořák’s fame as a nationalist composer that made him a particularly desirable catch for a wealthy American woman named Jeanette Meyer Thurber (1850 – 1946), the wife of Francis Thurber – a wildly successful wholesale grocer. In Dvořák, Thurber was not looking for a romantic catch, but rather a role model for the fledgling musical arts scene in the United States.

Thurber, a musician of talent (having been educated at the Paris Conservatory), aspired to create an institution of higher learning for the musical arts. In 1885, Thurber personally founded the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Modeled on the Paris Conservatory, its avowed mission was to create a national musical spirit and to “seek out and encourage female, minority and physically disabled students” to study music. Thurber’s vision seemed like a pipe dream to most. This completely radical thinking – a school that not only educated women and the handicapped alongside white men, but also admitted blacks – was unthinkable! Thurber was trying to push an idea of equality education when, only 25 short years previously, the 1860 census listed 14% of the people in the United States as legally classified as property (3,953,761 slaves). At a time when almost every American composer wanted to sound like Brahms, Thurber’s vision for this institution needed not only a heavyweight with artistic fame and respect, but also an intellectual visionary who could guide the American arts scene to a cohesive, uniquely American school of music. There were few people who fit the bill (and certainly no Americans), so Thurber had to look east to search for the guiding star she needed. When all was considered, Antonín Dvořák was the most logical choice.

Thurber knew that obtaining Dvořák was not going to be easy. Aside from Dvořák’s immense global fame, he was a chronic hypochondriac, hated to travel, suffered from debilitating agoraphobia (an anxiety disorder in which the sufferer becomes anxious in environments that are unfamiliar), was fearful of crowds, and was prone to performance anxiety and panic attacks. So how did Thurber manager to acquire a man like that, requiring him to leave his own country and travel thousands of miles to New York? On June 5, 1891, Thurber cabled Dvořák in Prague and offered him the directorship of the conservatory. The position included a three year contract, no more than three hours a day of teaching, several concerts each year, and a 2,500% increase of his current salary from the Prague Conservatory. Dvořák accepted. It is important to note that Dvořák did not just schlep to New York for Mrs. Thurber’s money; rather, he came armed with his own vision of inspiring a younger generation of artists, as well as a somewhat internal reason of searching for new musical inspiration – which he found, big time, in the New World! Dvořák was fascinated by the idea of America: a huge, sprawling, somewhat barbaric and backward, energy filled meritocracy, in which his own working class roots would be considered an asset instead of a liability.

And so it was that on September 27, 1892, Dvořák and his family arrived in New York. It was a complete media frenzy. He was the first famous European composer to ever visit the United States. The Musical Standard wrote, “He is much taller than his pictures would imply…. A man of great natural dignity. A man of character. He is not beautiful in the forms of the face, [but] there is so much emotional life in the eyes and lined face that his face is not easily forgotten.”

Composed between January 10 and May 24, 1893 in New York City, “New World” was the first of Dvořák’s so called “American works.” With its references to Negro spirituals, the plantation songs of Stephen Foster, and Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” it has also been called the first great American symphony. In reality, it is a cosmopolitan work: a combination of a German-styled symphony and tone poem, with a very thin thematic veneer of Americanism layered on top for local color. In a rare outburst, Dvořák revealed his pique with critics who attempted to paint him as an American composer: “So I am an American composer, am I? I was, I am, and I remain a Czech composer. I’ve only showed them [the Americans] the path they might take, how they should work.”

Much has been made about the resemblance of a number of themes in the symphony to preexisting American songs. Over and over again, Dvořák labeled the assertion that he had borrowed any preexisting melodies and inserted them into the symphony as nonsense. Rather, he said that he had tried to capture and reproduce the spirit of the spirituals and plantation songs he heard in America – quite well if we were fooled, to say the least. Dvořák said that we ought to, “…omit that nonsense about my having made use of ‘Indian’ and ‘American’ themes.  That is a lie. I tried to write only in the spirit of those national American melodies. 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.”

Misinterpretation of the symphony’s title has also contributed to the confusion regarding its use of borrowed material – and, therefore, whether or not it is an explicitly American symphony. In fact, Dvořák did not call the symphony “New World,” a title that implies it contains music of the New World. He called it “From the New World,” which he later explained meant, “Greetings from the New World.”   

If Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony was influenced by an external source, that source would have been Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic 1855 poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.”  Dvořák read “The Song of Hiawatha” as a young man in its Czech translation. And while in the United States, Mrs. Thurber badgered him mercilessly about writing a Hiawatha opera. That never happened. But it is generally understood that the second and third movements of the symphony were inspired by scenes from the poem. Dvořák never specified which poetic scene inspired the second movement, and thus, we can only speculate. However, no such speculation is necessary regarding the inspiration of the third movement scherzo, as Dvořák told a reporter for the New York Herald that it was inspired by Longfellow’s description of the dance of the Pau-Puk-Keewis.

The premiere of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony on December 16th, 1893 was very well-received and possibly the single greatest triumph of Dvořák’s compositional career. The New York Evening Post spoke for pretty much everybody when, “Anyone who heard it could not deny that it is the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country. A masterwork has been added to the symphonic literature.” Dvořák wrote to a friend that the reception "was magnificent. The newspapers say that never has a composer had such a triumph. The public applauded so much that I felt like a king."

On May 21, 1893, having been in the United States for eight months, Dvořák was quoted in an article in the New York Herald titled “On the Real Value of Negro Melodies.” Dvořák said, “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed with this idea and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil.  They are American. They are the folksongs of America, and your composers must turn to them. All the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people.” Dvořák opened the door. It took some time for the American musical establishment to walk through it, but walk through it the establishment eventually did. For Jeanette Thurber, it was mission accomplished. Reminiscing to a friend, she wrote, “In looking back over my 35 years as president of the National Conservatory of Music, there is nothing I am so proud of as having been able to bring Dvořák to America.”

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World” on February 5th, 2019: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith