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Neal’s Note: New World Symphony

The title of the final Masterworks Series program of the DPAA’s “Art that Moves” season is obvious. As we often do, we’ve named the program with the big piece on the concert—Antonin Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

The program’s “New World Symphony” title also refers to a much larger concept: an idea cooked up by Dvořák during his three-year stint as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. When he began teaching at the Conservatory in 1892, Dvořák was surprised and disappointed to discover that his American composition students were all imitating famous European composers like Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and himself instead of trying to write in an “American musical voice”.

When he first arrived in New York, I doubt that Dvořák had much sense of what the American voice was, but he started to learn as soon as he accompanied Jeannette Thurber, the founder of the National Conservatory, to Sunday services at her church, St. George’s Episcopal Church on Stuyvesant Square in Lower Manhattan. No one really knows what Dvořák—a devout Catholic—thought of the St. George’s Protestant liturgy, but we do know that he liked the music that he heard there. In particular, he was taken with the singing of the church’s young Black baritone soloist, Harry Burleigh, whose liturgical repertoire included African-American spirituals.

Dvořák introduced himself to Burleigh and offered a scholarship to study with him at the Conservatory. For the next three years—until Dvořák left the Conservatory and returned home to Bohemia—the relationship between Burleigh and Dvořák was perhaps the most important relationship in classical music. Because it was a two-way street. Dvořák taught Burleigh composition and orchestration. Burleigh taught Dvořák American music—spirituals in particular.

When Dvořák wrote his New World Symphony in 1893, he filled it with echoes of the spirituals he learned from Burleigh and the Native American music he heard at the Kickapoo Medicine Show during his travels to Iowa and at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The symphony was a synthesis of the music of Dvořák’s European homeland and the music he discovered here. It was also a message to his composition students. “Here’s what I did with your national music. You should try it, too.”

Only a few took his advice, but one who did was—you guessed it—Harry Burleigh (who also served as Dvořák’s copyist for New World Symphony’s New York premiere). You’ll hear some of the results tonight, in Burleigh’s gorgeous version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which includes a little tip-of-the-hat “Easter Egg” addressed to Dvořák himself—a one bar quote of a principal theme from the New World Symphony!

Tonight’s program shows that even though most of his students stuck to their Euro-centric tendencies, in the long run, America got the home-grown musical sound that Dvořák was hoping to inspire—a sound blending the European, American, and African-American musical traditions. You’ll hear it in every note we play this weekend.

On a personal note, I didn’t learn about the Burleigh-Dvořák connection in school. I didn’t even learn about it in Joseph Horowitz’s important book Dvorak in America. I learned about Burleigh and Dvořák in 1978, when I was a grad student in New York and singing in the choir of the Parish of Calvary and St. George’s. Yes, I was a baritone at St. George’s Church, standing in the same choir stall where Harry Burleigh had stood some eighty years earlier. Yes, I could sing. But I assure you, I was no Harry Burleigh!

– Neal Gittleman, Artistic Director and Conductor, Dayton Philharmonic