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

Imagine: you’re living in your idea of the perfect country, surrounded by your loved ones and admiring friends, and getting well paid for pursuing your favourite hobby. Sounds like Heaven on Earth, doesn’t it? Right, now suppose that somebody you didn’t know offered you a job. If you took it, you’d have to up sticks, leave your pals and your perfect country, and go on a long and perilous sea voyage to some remote and unknown country. What would you do? Dead right - and in 1891 for those very reasons the Czech composer Antonin Dvorák also turned down such an invitation from Mrs Jeanette Thurber, founder of a National Conservatoire of Music in New York. 

Back then, America’s classical music was no more than a copy-cat continuation of the old European styles. Mrs Thurber was hell-bent on changing all that - she wanted a music that was truly “American”. To give her Conservatoire some “street cred” she needed the Director to be a big international celebrity. There were plenty of those, but she also badly needed someone who had the right experience, namely someone who was particularly hot on “nationalism”. Dvorák, inspired by the example of Smetana, had adapted his homeland’s folk styles to European classical forms, with spectacular success. His music was “Czech” through and through. Dvorák was her man. In 1892, the determined Mrs Thurber made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. 

Dvorák found the “New World” a tremendously strange and exciting place. Not surprisingly, he got a real “buzz” in particular out of all the new sounds and styles of the popular music he found there. He was soon beavering away, adapting these new ideas for his own compositions, just as he had previously done with those Czech folk styles. Even so, everything in his garden was far from rosy. As anyone who has ever suffered from it will tell you, homesickness is a really horrible feeling, crawling up from the pit of your stomach and infesting your mind. Dvorák suffered terribly from it. 

The Ninth Symphony was completed early in 1893, which was fast work by anybody’s standards. Apparently he intended it as a tribute to his generous hosts, though judging by the title he gave it, From the New World, it also contained a message to his folk back home. What would that “message” be? Well, nowadays people always seem to point to the smashing tunes, the pulsating rhythms, and the vivid colours. We seem to see only the bright lights of this music, and gloss over the dark corners. But if we open our ears just that bit more, think ourselves into “back then”, we realise that there are both “light” and “dark” sides in the music: the excitement of the strange “new world” and the aching for the familiar (but uncomfortably remote) “old world” are continually contrasted, and even locked in combat. 

But emotions alone do not a story make - there is drama by the hatful, but no “dramatic narrative”. That’s because this is also “absolute music” - a real symphony, using all the tricks of the trade that have been worked out by composers down though the ages of a long European tradition. “Two for the price of one” - a real bargain, and no mistake! The first three movements follow established patterns, while the finale is brilliantly original. 

Please note that the paragraphs in smaller print are aimed at those who feel the need for a bit of relatively “technical” detail. 

1. Adagio (leisurely) - Allegro Molto (pretty quick). At first, Dvorák seems to gaze homewards at sunrise, but then turns to glimpse the pulsating vitality of the “New World”. His sadness is soon swept aside by a river of excitement. 

This is an (almost) straightforward sonata-form. The slow introduction brims with potent impressions that 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 overtaken by the continuation of the first, leading one to wonder, “Was this actually the second subject?”, especially when the music subsides into 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 (slow, dignified). Dvorák ’s tender tune shows how well he’d picked up American popular styles. It sounds like, but isn’t, a Negro spiritual. Much later, his tune was actually adopted as a spiritual (and given the title Goin’ Home). In the middle of the movement, some lively Czech sounds bring on a wave of “homesickness”. This makes the lovely tune, when it returns, seem even more lonely. 

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 together make an elegant arch-structure. 

3. Scherzo - molto vivace (very lively). Bright, bouncing tunes and snappy rhythms remind us of both sprightly Czech dances and “Home on the Range” - buffalo, covered wagons and all that. At least, that’s how it sounds: how much would Dvorák have learnt in such a short time? 

Formally, this 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 then more ominously near the end. 

4. Allegro con fuoco (fast and fiery). Dvorák cuts loose in a big way, mixing stacks of great new tunes with ones we’ve already heard. But in all the hustle and bustle, you might find that each tune tells you something either about the “excitement of the New World” or that “aching for the Old World (Dvorák ’s home)”. Very near the end, two tunes crash together, making a terrible grinding noise: Dvorák ’s excitement and homesickness are finally head-to-head, “locked in combat”! 

Dvorák could easily have pre-empted Sibelius' famous Quasi una Fantasia marking by seven years, and with greater justification. Seemingly, a riotous development is fed by a whole host of new tunes confused with earlier themes, as if Dvorák were overwhelmed by all his experiences. However, it all boils down to just 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, as in Beethoven’s Ninth, but sewn into the very 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 and leading into the grinding climax of the coda.

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


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