Along with Janacek and Smetana, Dvorak is regarded as one of the great nationalist Czech composers of the 19th Century. 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. Written in America in 1893, Dvorak allowed the nomenclature “From the New World” as it conjures up the pioneering spirit, the landscape, folk culture, and the bustle of an emerging, vibrant nation. He subsequently repudiated the suggestion that Negro Plantation music had influenced his composition, stating that the rhythms and inflexions of spiritual music were similar to Slav folk music.
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 open 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 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!