From the New World: 9th symphony by Antonin Dvořák

Portrait of Dvorak

Portrait of Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák came to America because of a woman who was used to getting her own way. In 1884, a wealthy arts patroness in New York, Jeanette Thurber, established the National Conservatory of Music and hired a Belgian singer as its first director. The Conservatory was unusual for a number of reasons:

  • She conceived and ran it as a philanthropic, not commercial venture. Therefore, it admitted students who otherwise could not have gotten a musical education.
  • Women as well as men comprised the student body.
  • The student body was not limited to white students. Some Native American and African American students studied there, too.

When the school’s first director returned to Europe in 1889, Mrs. Thurber decided to replace him with a famous composer in order to boost its prestige. After some consultation, she narrowed her choices to Jean Sibeleus and Antonin Dvořák, whom she finally offered the position in April 1891

Dvořák had just accepted a professorship at the Prague Conservatory and replied that he could not consent to her invitation. Instead of turning to Sibelius, Mrs. Thurber decided to sweeten the deal. She wrote back and said that the directorship would include at least six weeks of concerts of his compositions and an annual salary of $15,000.

I’m not sure what that would be in today’s money, but prices have increased something more than tenfold in the last sixty years. They had surely increased some in the previous sixty years. Therefore she offered him a directorship of a young and virtually unknown for probably the equivalent of somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000 per year.

In any case, it was more money than Dvořák had earned from all of his compositions up to that point in his life. While he struggled with whether to accept it, Mrs. Thurber kept bombarding him with cables. Finally, after a family vote, Dvořák’s wife took him by the hand into his study where the contract sat and handed him his pen.

Dvořák in New York

Dvorak with family and friends, New York

Dvořák (far right) with family and friends in New York

Dvořák, some of his family, and a private secretary arrived in New York on September 27, 1892. Less than a month later, he conducted a concert in Carnegie Hall of four of his compositions, including the world premiere of his Te Deum.

It didn’t take long for him to develop an appreciation for America’s democratic society and New York’s technological sophistication. In particular, he appreciated that entire concert series existed to present the world’s greatest music to members of the working class–to the urban poor. He also approved of the absence of titled nobility in this country.

With only eight composition students, Dvořák’s teaching schedule took only three hours a day. His only other duties were conducting student orchestra rehearsals twice a week. That gave him plenty of time to indulge his fascination with the Central Park Aviary and New York’s trains.

Dvořák also spent a lot of time getting to know the country’s most important musical institutions. They included the Metropolitan Opera House, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the New York Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and numerous important choral societies.

A school of American composers had gathered around John Knowles Paine in Boston, but they were American only by birth. Every one of them simply tried their best to be German. Dvořák realized he could make a difference by encouraging the development of a distinctly American music. After all, he had freed himself from his own slavish devotion to German music and discovered a distinctly Czech style.

Much of that Czech style came not only from using Czech folk tunes, but also their discovering unique melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and formal traits. These became the basis of the new sound that had made him internationally famous.

Mrs. Thurber’s highly unusual decision to admit not only poor students but non-whites gave Dvořák a wonderful opportunity to experience various American folk musics. Among his students was Henry T. Burleigh, who became among the first of America’s distinguished black composers.

Burleigh, also a professional singer, sang plantation songs for Dvořák, and through repetition taught him how Negro singers bent notes and otherwise sang with inflections and rhythms that differed greatly from anything Dvořák had ever heard before.

At the same time, Dvořák developed an appreciation for song of the Creoles and Indians, as well as the folk songs of homesick European immigrants. Perhaps he never heard white Appalachian or Western folk music. Certainly he heard the popular music sung to respectable audiences in concert halls, but it probably left him cold (although he did like Stephen Foster). He never mentioned it as a source of a genuine American style. Of all of the different kinds of music he studied, Negro melodies remained his favorite.

From the New World

Autograph title page of From the New World

Autograph title page of From the New World

Dvořák began work on a new symphony in December 1892 and finished it the following May. It was his first work begun and completed on American soil and, as it turns out, his last symphony. It was published as his Symphony no. 5. Its current number, 9, results from adding four unpublished symphonies to his thematic catalog.

All of Dvořák’s mature works show German formal construction with a deliberately Bohemian twist. From the New World, now better known as the New World Symphony, is really no different in that regard, but it also shows the fruit of his conversations with Burleigh and others. Negro melodies abound.

For the first performance of the symphony in London Dvořák wrote,

I called the symphony “From the New World” because it was the very first work I wrote in America. As to my opinion, I think that the influence of this country (…the folk songs that are Negro, Indian, Irish, etc.) is to be seen, and that this and all other works written in America differ very much from any earlier works, as much in color as in character…

The world premiere, by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on December 16, 1893, was a huge success, but the critical reception shows that Dvořák had touched a tender racial nerve. In cosmopolitan New York, critics Henry Krehbiel and William James Henderson praised the symphony not only as “a vigorous and beautiful work” (to quote Henderson), but also as the achievement of a uniquely American sound.

According to Henderson,

In spite of all assertion to the contrary, the plantation songs of the American negro possess a striking individuality. No matter whence their germs came, they have in their growth been subjected to local influences which have made of them a new species. That species is the direct result of causes climatic and political, but never anything else than American.

Our South is ours. Its twin does not exist. Our system of slavery, with all its domestic and racial conditions, was ours, and its twin never existed. Out of the heart of this slavery, environed by this sweet and languorous South, from the canebrake and the cotton field, arose the spontaneous musical utterance of a people. That folk music struck an answering note in the American heart. . .

If those songs are not national, then there is no such thing as national music. It is a fallacy to suppose that a national song must be one which gives direct and intentional expression to a patriotic sentiment. A national song is one that is of the people, for the people, by the people. The negroes gave us this music and we accepted it, not with proclamations from the housetops, but with our voices and our hearts in the household.

Dr. Dvorak has penetrated the spirit of this music, and with themes suitable for symphonic treatment, he has written a beautiful symphony, which throbs with American feeling, which voices the melancholy of our Western wastes, and predicts their final subjection to the tremendous activity of the most energetic of all peoples.

The “assertions to the contrary” came especially from Boston critic Philip Hale, who was offended that Dvořák had completely neglected the more respectable aspects of American society.

As a relative newcomer, he had been duped into the notion that “the future of American music rests on the use of Congo, North American Indian Creole, Greaser and Cowboy ditties, whinings, yawps, and whoopings.”

Hale also dismissed Dvořák as a “negrophile,” as if that was some crime against humanity. Boston was at the time a far less cosmopolitan city than New York, and Bostonians as a whole probably had much less personal experience with Negro musicians.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that Hale’s position had more behind it than mere racism. More than half a century earlier, Boston had been at the center of a very successful movement to purge rough and uncouth elements from American hymnody, which then owed a great deal to the rural English composer William Tans’ur.

At that time, Lowell Mason and like-minded people succeeded in driving such established (and interesting) composers as William Billings out of city churches in favor of their own boring and insipid imitations of urban European propriety.

The New World Symphony turned out to be not only a triumph as a piece of music, but also as a political statement. Most of the Boston composers have been reduced to an occasional curiosity on modern symphonic programs. The main exception, Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, has begun to be heard again in the general revival of music by women composers.

From the music of hers that I have heard, I suspect that her fellow Bostonians deserve to be heard more, too. But that doesn’t change the fact that Dvořák and the New York critics, not Hale, understood the true future of American music.

From jazz to rock and beyond, the music of slaves has completely taken over American popular music. If it does not so totally dominate American symphonic music, it’s only because composers have explored the entire depth and breadth of American folk music, just as Dvořák advocated.

Don’t have a recording of the New World Symphony? Find one here:

All illustrations are public domain.
Dec 16, 1893: Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” receives its world premiere in New York City / This Day in History
Criticism at the crossroads / Joseph Horowitz (second essay on the page)
Discovering America’s Musical Language: A History of Dvorak’s Visit to the New World / Pemberly.Tripod

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