VIDEO: Is the New World Symphony really American?
Oliver Condy sheds light on how Dvořák’S 9th Symphony came to be described as ‘From the New World’.
Why is Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 referred to as ‘From the New World’? After all, Dvorak was a Czech composer, more used to evoking Slavonic traditions than American.
In 1891, Dvorak was the toast of Europe, his reputation stretching as far as the US. And so, the same year, he was invited to head up the National Conservatory of Music in New York, where he lived for just under three years. And it was there he heard one of his students, Harry T Burleigh, sing the spirituals that would inspire him to write his Ninth Symphony.
But what we hear throughout the piece, is not the spirituals themselves, but Dvorak’s own version of them – ‘It was my intention’, he wrote in 1900, ‘only to write in the spirit of these national American melodies’, although if you listen closely to that famous slow movement, with its haunting Cor Anglais solo, you can make out the skeleton of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot…
But is the New World Symphony really American? What Dvorak does is create a symphony in the traditional mould of the 19th century, following after Brahms and Schumann. But he infuses his masterpiece with the flavours of American melodies, tunes that resonate with all of us because they possess musical elements that are in our own folk traditions, English, Scottish, Czech… Perhaps Dvorak was yearning for his homeland rather than celebrating American heritage.
So – had Dvorak laid the foundations of the American classical style? Perhaps – if Dvorak had never visited the open plains of Appalachian America, he seemed to instinctively fathom how they should sound in music.
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