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Program Note: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”

Antonin Dvořák

(Born in Nelahozeves, near Prague, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) in 1841; died in Prague in 1904)

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, Op. 95, B. 178

  1. Adagio – Allegro molto
  2. Largo
  3. Scherzo – Molto vivace
  4. Allegro con fuoco

In 1892, the American philanthropist, Jeanette Thurber, invited Czech composer Antonin Dvořák to America to be the Director of her new music conservatory in New York.  Thurber hoped Dvořák would help America find its own home-grown Nationalistic style, and Dvořák accepted the directorship and began his duties that same year.  One of Dvořák’s first student assistants was the African-American singer, Harry T. Burleigh, who soon taught the Czech composer about Spirituals.  Those Spirituals, in turn, helped inspire Dvořák to write a series of articles, where he stated, in part:

“I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies … the folk songs of America….”

As America celebrated Dvořák’s arrival, the New York Philharmonic commissioned him to write a new symphony in 1893.  He completed it quickly, titling it Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” and premiered it with the Philharmonic that year.  Described as being inspired by the very “folk songs” that Dvořák had talked about in his articles, the new Symphony is filled with some of Dvořák’s most memorable music.  It was an immediate success, and it continues to be cherished as one of the greatest “American” pieces.

The introduction to the first movement, marked Adagio (slowly), begins as though it’s the start of an epic tale, with a “once upon a time” feeling to it.  The main body of the movement, Allegro molto (very fast), then progresses through multiple waves of building energy which are tempered by moments of exquisite lyricism.  But upon each new build-up, the underlying energy seems to grow more vigorous until the movement’s last measures, where horns and trumpets herald the final, emphatic bars.

The introduction to the second movement, Largo (slowly and dignified), is one of the most poignant moments in the Symphony.  Brass and low winds begin a short, slow-moving chorale, which carry us far away from the energy of the first movement.  The main body of this Largo features one of the most loved melodies that Dvořák ever penned, when the English horn sings a long, beautiful, and yearning melody overtop long-held notes in the strings.  Dvořák reportedly wrote this famous solo for the English horn because it reminded him of Burleigh’s exceptional baritone voice.  Years later in 1922, that lovely melody would be reused as the popular Spiritual-like song, “Goin’ Home,” by another of Dvořák’s students, William Arms Fisher (1861-1948).

The third movement Scherzo, Molto vivace (very lively) begins with a brief, aggressive introduction until the violins settle into a stiff propulsive pattern of repeated notes.  Over top, the winds play a jaunty, jangled melody.  A delightful contrast occurs in the middle sections (Trio) with Dvořák’s use of the triangle (a metallic percussion instrument) which makes everything twinkle a little brighter.

The Finale, Allegro con fuoco (fast with passion), begins with the strings playing an insistent and accelerating two-note motive – one long note followed by one short note a step higher – which creates a sense of urgency.  After the buildup of these introductory bars, the finale proceeds in a kind of rhapsody on the multiple themes from throughout the Symphony.  One of the most exciting moments of this theme-rhapsodizing happens at about ten minutes, when the brass play the once-solemn brass chorale from the Largo movement, but much louder, as the timpani pound away and the strings shoot upwards like rockets.  The tension builds in power until the Symphony’s final bars – a triumphant conclusion which is surely one of the most exhilarating endings in music.

© Max Derrickson