Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, op. 95 (“From the New World”)

            Dvořák is the preëminent Czech composer of the nineteenth century, and perhaps of all of his successors, as well.   This is no small achievement, considering the number of great musicians--Mozart, for example—who thought of Bohemia as the most musical country in Europe.  Even today, one can hardly get on a streetcar in Prague without stepping around a double bass. Americans today, if they think of Czech music at all, other than two works by Smetana, it is of the music of Dvořák. They know little of the other composers of the incredible musical wealth of Bohemia—including Fibich, Ostrčil, Janáček, Foerster, Hába, and Martinů—just to name a few.  Dvořák is merely “first among equals” in the history of Czech music, and many more of the compositions of “the conservatory of Europe” need to reach our own concert stages.

            Dvořák owed his initial recognition to Johannes Brahms, who encountered his music somewhat early in Dvořák’s career, and saw to it that he was enabled to spend time in Vienna for further study.  While Dvořák’s fundamental stylistic orientation is similar to the older composer in its classical restraint and dedication to traditional forms and procedures, his compositions are unmistakably Czech in myriad subtle ways.  Turns of harmony, melody, and rhythm firmly establish Dvořák’s ethnicity, even within the disciplined tradition of musical composition leading back to, say, Beethoven.  Like Brahms, Dvořák wrote stunningly well in the genres of string quartets, sonatas, and symphonies.  But unlike Brahms, he also wrote tone poems, and was an active and successful opera composer, although only his Rusalka is widely known in this country.  He was interested in almost every genre, and few of his contemporaries composed successfully in as many different ones as did Dvořák.

            He clearly thought of himself as a champion of Czech music, and he incorporated significant Czech musical, literary, and historical elements into his works.   His Slavonic Rhapsodies, tone poems, operas, and songs—the list goes on and on—all are heavily infused with Czech melodies, linguistic inflections and characteristic rhythms, and national legends and stories.   And it must be admitted that these essential elements of his artistic voice are near the core of his attractiveness to audiences worldwide—not just in his homeland. Yet, to focus inordinately on these elements would miss the mark in understanding the most important aspect of the nature of his music. As deeply rooted as he is in the Czech musical tradition, it would be a mistake to consign him primarily to the category of “nationalist” composers.  For Dvořák was a clear adherent of the artistic thinking of those composers of the nineteenth century who were firmly rooted in the tradition of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven (and later, Mendelssohn and Brahms) as a fundamental way of composing.  That is, they favored classical forms and designs, integrated development of musical ideas, and in general, a restrained and balanced expression that placed strong emphasis on music as an abstract art.  Generally speaking not for them were the “stories” and programs of folks like Liszt and Wagner, and their followers.   And in his mastery of the resilience of this style, the symphonies of Dvořák have taken a central place in the symphonic repertoire from those times that are favored today by concert audiences.

            Dvořák wrote nine symphonies, but Americans are most familiar with his last one, Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World.”  Its popularity and success was assured from its première in Carnegie Hall in 1893.  It is safe to say that it is the most important work composed in the United States up until that time.  By the 1880s Dvořák was a leading composer with a worldwide reputation, although he had not achieved great financial security for his beloved family.  So it was with notable alacrity that he responded to the offer by a wealthy New York philanthropist to come to that city and assume the duties of head of her new American Conservatory—and at a stunning salary!  He came to America in 1892 and stayed for three years, during that time composing several significant works, including the cello concerto, the “American” string quartet, and, of course, the ninth symphony.

            Dvořák plunged right in with his work in New York, and took the opportunity to continue in greater depth his interest in indigenous America musical materials—especially Black American spirituals and whatever Native American music—or what passed for that in those days—that he could find.  The exact nature of “American” melodies, rhythms, and harmonies that surfaced in his music during those three years has long been a major source of controversy.  And the “New World” symphony was ground zero for those debates.  For the last century, scholars of all ilk have posited this tune and that melody in the symphony as derived or quoted from native sources.   Characteristic “American” rhythms are served up as influences upon Dvořák.  Longfellow’s epic poem, Hiawatha, is adduced as the model for the middle movements.  And the famous melody of the slow movement for many years was claimed to be a Black spiritual, when in fact the “spiritual” was born three decades later, when newly-composed words in dialect were set to Dvořák’s immortal tune.  It all was a fine kettle of fish.  Recent historical analysis has pretty much relegated specific American elements in the symphony as broad and vaguely inspirational—for most of what had been previously heard as “From the New World” is now known to be mostly from the “European World.”  Characteristic scales and melodic shapes in the work are common to many cultures around the world.  In the end, it is best to hear this great composition as essentially Czech in almost every way—Dvořák really couldn’t help being himself.  Listen carefully to his many other compositions, and it’s clear that the  “New World Symphony” is Bohemian from top to bottom.

            The first movement begins with a brief, slow introduction, which lays out an essential melodic shape, important through the movement.  Soon, after a spiky accent from the strings, the main theme is heard again, but clearly now in the horns.  After a while the other main idea--a rather dark little bucolic “village dance”--is introduced by oboes and flute.  The last idea is an optimistic tune, first heard in the low register of the solo flute.  With all the themes introduced, a relatively short development of them ensues—all of the ideas easily recognized.  And, as at the beginning, the horns start our trip back home with the main theme.  After a harmonic surprise, the movement ends with the same dynamic mood of the beginning.

            A few dark, low chords in the brass and woodwinds introduce the famous English horn solo—just try to not think of the faux spiritual, “Goin’ Home,” if you can!  The middle section, in the minor mode, seems to be a gentle, funereal march, supported after a little while by pizzicato basses.  Softer and softer, the mood is sustained until a sudden interruption from dancing woodwinds brings in a brighter frame of mind, sounding almost like rustic bagpipes skirling.  At this juncture, Dvořák, in a characteristic move, brings back two important ideas, easily remembered from the first movement—one played by the trombones, the other by the horns and violins. These he combines with the English horn tune, now in the trumpets—all in one measure!  The solo English horn from the beginning quickly returns, and after a wistful contribution from a solo violin and cello, the ominous chords that opened the movement bring us to the end.

            The third movement scherzo is a mad Czech dance, with the added treat of two trios--rather than the conventional single one--in the middle as contrast.  They serve as a lyrical foil to the hammering freneticism of this careening Slavic folk choreography.  By now, you’ve undoubtedly noticed how, in the best Romantic fashion, Dvořák is tying all the movements together, not only by quoting the same themes from movement to movement, but also by slyly fashioning all of them from the same simple musical intervals, creatively varied.  This movement is no exception—after the dynamic opening (with some cross-accents familiar to those who remember his Slavonic Dances), the more relaxed first trio echoes the English horn tune from the slow movement.  After a brief return to the thundering opening the second trio provides a diversion in the guise of a lilting Ländler, replete with the composer’s penchant for trills.  Then, back to the hammering first section, ending with a coda, and what else?—a quote of the familiar horn motif from the opening of the symphony.

            The last movement starts ominously in a dark, march-like mood, with unison horns and trumpets pealing out the famous modal theme.  After chewing on this a bit, the orchestra goes to the expected second theme. This pleasant contrasting material is heard first in the soothing solo clarinet, followed by others.  What then ensues is a magic development of all of almost everything that you will remember as a tune from all the movements--varied, combined, and worked through as only a composer at the height of his powers, and a true disciple of Beethoven and Brahms could do.  Even without all of this truly admirable intellectual and musical discipline, the psychological buildup to the end is sheer joy to experience.  Constantly changing moods, tempos, and dynamics inevitably lead us to the triumph at the end, as minor turns to major, sustained by fortissimo statements of our familiar melodies.  Interspersed are the familiar ominous chords from the slow movement, now sounded out in stentorian tones by all the winds.  A final last reiteration of the main themes of the first and last movements take us home. When all has been said, it really doesn’t matter at all whether this magnificent work is from the “New World,” or the world of Dvořák’s beloved Bohemia—there is no doubt that it is from the musical world of a genius.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan