Dvorák (1841-1904) - Symphony No. 9 “From the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
note that the paragraphs in smaller print are aimed at those who feel the
need for a bit of relatively “technical” detail.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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”!
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
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,
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