Antonin Dvořák — Symphony No. 9
Antonin Dvořák — Symphony No. 9

One of the great ironies of American music history is that Antonin Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, “From the New World,” was primarily responsible for first putting this country’s classical music on the map. Given that Dvořák was a Czech composer who never studied under an American teacher and spent less than five years of his life in America, the success of his final symphony in lending international credibility to American music and creating an idiomatic template for other composers to follow is either remarkable or kind of depressing, depending on how you look at it.

Granted, when you listen to Dvořák’s symphony today, you can’t help but hear music that sounds somehow quintessentially American. But one can reasonably wonder whether it sounds so American because subsequent composers echoed its style, or because it taps a deeply, uniquely American idiomatic vein.

Dvořák was brought to America in late 1892 by Jeannette Thurber, a self-appointed culture maven who sought to develop a distinctively American tradition of classical music through the creation of a National Conservatory of Music. Dvořák was brought on as the institution’s first director; within eight months of his arrival in New York, he completed his new symphony.

When the work was premiered, Dvořák made a statement that would prove prescient. “I am satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies,” asserted the composer. “These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” Though somewhat controversial at the time, Dvořák’s statement would prove true over the course of the ensuing century, when urban African-American musicians developed the idiom of jazz. Meantime, many classical composers took Dvořák at his word, mining spirituals and other African-American music for source material.

Dvořák also trumpeted the virtues of Native American music, and claimed to have drawn on Native melodies and rhythms for much inspiration in his symphony. He specifically claimed to have written the melody of the second movement with Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” in mind.

Yet most scholars today insist that Dvořák’s symphony is no more American in content or character than any of his other works. Indeed, the Ninth is more clearly reminiscent of Dvořák’s previous symphonies — particularly the Seventh and Eighth — than any external source material that he encountered in America. And Dvořák himself modified his statements about the true source of the material in the symphony over time. “Leave out the nonsense about my having made use of American melodies,” he wrote in 1900 to a conductor who was planning a performance of the symphony. “I have only composed in the spirit of such American national melodies.”

In the end, Dvořák’s ode to the new world should best be recognized on purely musical merits: This is one of the greatest symphonies ever written, a masterpiece that combines immediately memorable melodies with a perfectly balanced structure.

Program notes provided by Joe Nickell

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