Dvorak – Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”

The Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, Op. 95, B. 178 (Czech: Symfonie č. 9 e moll „Z nového světa“), popularly known as the New World Symphony, was composed by Antonin Dvorak in 1893 while he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America from 1892 to 1895. Dvorak was interested in Native American music and the African-American spirituals he heard in America. As director of the National Conservatory he encountered an African-American student, Harry T. Burleigh, later a composer himself, who sang traditional spirituals to him and said that Dvorak had absorbed their ‘spirit’ before writing his own melodies. Dvorak himself claimed that the rhythms and inflexions of the spiritual music were similar to his native Slav folk music. He has earned worldwide admiration and prestige for Czech music with his 9 symphonies, chamber music, oratorios, songs, piano works and his operas. Although no child prodigy, he showed an early aptitude for music, mastering the viola, organ and piano by his 16th year. From then on he rose, through industry and merit, to emerge from Bohemia as one of the most highly original musicians of his generation. His music has a spontaneous, uninhibited character and he composed for a wide range of instruments. His nine symphonies were completed over a period of 28 years, and, although symphonies 6 and 7 are technically superior, the 9th (New World) reigns supreme. Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission, the first Moon landing, in 1969.

The opening movement ‘Adagio – Allegro molto’ sets the mood for the symphony. It introduces three main ideas: the first, a lively rag-time theme on the woodwind; the second, a triumphant statement in syncopated rhythm led by the horns; and the third, a melody half reminiscent of the Negro Spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. The themes interact creating a colourful, contrasting mood. The opening of the ‘Largo’ is pure cinematography; a sequence of sustained chords on brass and woodwind, swell to produce the American prairies before your eyes. The cor anglais enters with a sustained, expressive song-like melody of exquisite beauty. The middle section of the movement breaks the calm, with a lift in tempo and a hurried descending three-note theme on flute and oboe. The rather gloomy broad woodwind melody is supported by pizzicato strings until the cor anglais returns with an air of intensified melancholy.

The theme from the Largo was adapted into the spiritual-like song ‘Goin’ Home’ (often mistakenly considered a folk song or traditional spiritual) by Dvorak’s pupil William Arms Fisher, who wrote the lyrics in 1922.

The dramatic, syncopated opening of the third movement ‘Scherzo – molto vivace’ introduces jagged rhythms, suggestive of ragtime tunes prevalent in America at that time.

The final movement ‘Allegro con fuoco’ is Dvorak’s most striking – highly original music, bringing together all the major themes of the preceding movements in a blaze of colour. Listen out for the very unusual cymbal solo – the only note the instrument plays in the entire work!

Beverley Whitehead, Flute