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Dvorák (1841-1904) - Symphony No. 9 "From the New World"

If Dvorák's Ninth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto have anything in common, it's that both endure massive popularity. Sounds daft, but it's true: they both exhale hedonistic smokescreens camouflaging their less obvious merits. Dvorák's Ninth has enough juicy tunes to shame a Strauss Waltz, and although Tovey's observation that it's “full of good, red meat” may disenchant today's “veggies”, we in the carnivorous rearguard can still feast royally! 

In 1885, Mrs. Jeanette Thurber founded the National Conservatoire of Music in New York, expressly to stimulate an American school of composers.  In 1891, desperately desirous of an international celebrity to be Director and presumably lacking any native of sufficient stature (?) she approached Dvorák. He declined, but succumbed to an improved offer in 1892. During his three-year tenure, he evidently benefitted from the “culture shock”, which provoked some fabulous music, including the 'Cello Concerto, String Quartet op 96, and Piano Quintet

Unlike some, Dvorák was not diminished by influences: he absorbed and was nourished by them. By 1874, having subsumed an early Wagnerian influence, he proceeded to imbibe his native folk- culture. Admirably complementing his talent for melody and pastoralism, the Czech folk idioms were brilliantly integrated with classical form and counterpoint. Dvorák no less effectively absorbed American influences: “... if I had not seen America I should never have written my symphony [etc.] the way I did.” Although garnished with local flavour, he advised Oskan Nedbal to “Leave out all that nonsense about my having made use of original American national melodies”, so while it's ironic that his Largo was adopted as a proper Negro spiritual (“Goin' Home”), it's also a very special compliment. 

The Ninth Symphony was completed, early in 1893, with almost unseemly haste, apparently because he intended it as a tribute. However, loving his homeland as he did, he would also have been terribly homesick. The Ninth is at once responding to the excitement of the strange “new world” and longing for the familiar but uncomfortably remote “old world”. Reporting the première, the New York Herald thought it “a distinctive American work insofar as it gave the Czech composer's impression of the country”, a penetrating observation. 

The first three movements follow established patterns, while the finale displays astonishing originality. 

1. Adagio - Allegro Molto: This (almost) straightforward sonata-form is invigorated by its slow introduction, seeming to gaze homewards at sunrise, then turning to glimpse the pulsating vitality of the “New World”. These potent impressions fuel a first subject of teeming invention, the dominant mood of the movement. Two phrases become a “motto”, used in all four movements. A lilting second subject (woodwind) is soon supplanted by the continuation of the first, leading one to wonder, “Was this actually the second subject?”, especially when the music subsides onto an even more contrasted episode. However, it soon transpires that this is a singing extension of the first motto phrase masquerading as the second subject, and all part of an extended bridge to the development. 

2. Largo: A chorale-like sequence of mellifluous brass chords introduces a set of variations on a tender cor-anglais melody, aching in the gulf between two worlds. This stream of nostalgic serenity is interrupted, at its heart, by a much livelier variation which draws in the motto. The recurrence of the chorale motif and the balancing of episodes around this central emotion furnish the movement with an elegant arch structure. 

3. Scherzo (molto vivace): Bouncing tunes and tautly-sprung rhythms elicit a curious combination of Slavonic Dance and Open Range - buffalo, covered wagons and all that. At least, so it sounds: how broad would Dvorák's experience have been in a mere month or two? Formally, it is the very model of a classical scherzo and trio, with the motto materials decorating the tails of the scherzo sections, a little gingerly in the approach to the trio, and more affirmatively near the end. 

4. Allegro con fuoco: Dvorák could easily have pre-empted Sibelius' famous “Quasi una Fantasia” marking by seven years, and with greater justification. Seemingly, a veritable plethora of tunes feeds a riotous development, confused with earlier themes as if Dvorák were overwhelmed by his myriad experiences. However, that plethora resolves into two subjects: one optimistically stoic in “cotton-pickin'” style, the other mellifluous on clarinet; both extended by dancing offshoots. In the “development”, recollections are not paraded like tidy infants in their Whitsunday best, à la Beethoven Ninth, but integrated into the fabric. This “development” is actually the continuation of a rondo: AB (exposition) ABA (development/coda). The first phase, starting with the first subject on horns, features the Largo and Scherzo themes, drawing in the motto at one point, and culminating in a formidable climax on the first subject. The second, calmer, involves the motto, dancing on bassoon, then plainly on horn. The third, triggered by a fanfare, expands the first by dramatically invoking the Largo chorale. The coda's grinding of first subject against motto is like a homesick groan amid the exotic attractions, an impression reinforced moments later by the (not yet invented!) cinematographic “fade to black”: would a postcard home have read, “Having wonderful time, wish I were there”?

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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