Dvorak and his Musical "New World"

Antonin Dvorak's "New World" Symphony was welcomed instantly and universally as a sublime musical masterpiece and a profound experience for audiences when it was premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1893. But it is revealing and fascinating to look back today at the controversies about its composition and its reception, revolving around questions of cultural authenticity and its place in a struggle to define what, if any, significance in the larger artistic universe America might aspire to.

We now know that it is not true (as some had previously thought) that Dvorak was the first important musician to look to the musical traditions of black and Native Americans for the roots of what might become a distinctly "American" classical musical language. Louis Moreau Gottschalk wrote considerable Creole-inspired music before the Civil War (in the 1850s), and this music was widely heard and celebrated. Composers like George Whiting wrote and spoke about the need to emulate this influence in the decade before Dvorak came to the US. In the very early 1890s, an American orchestra toured Europe playing an all-American program, strongly influenced by African-American melodies.

But when Dvorak accepted the invitation to become the director of the new National Conservatory of Music in New York, he brought with him an innate curiosity about indigenous music and how to incorporate it into his own works. This was not a new idea for him - anticipating the ethnomusicology of Bartok and Kodaly, a half century before they made this their trademarks. Dvorak had not only absorbed the folk songs of his native Bohemia into sets of orchestral Slavonic Dances, but this musical style became his trademark in works of all types, long before he thought to come to America. And when he did come to the US, he made a point of soaking up the local culture not only of New York and the Eastern establishment, but he also spent long periods of time in the West, and spent many months in the Bohemian enclave of Spillville, Iowa.

When he arrived in New York, he sought out the singer Henry T. Burleigh, who sang spirituals for him. (Burleigh went on to a significant compositional career of his own.) Dvorak noted: "I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them."

He also was attracted to what he understood to be the music of Native American Indians. He wrote (in anticipation of the premiere of the New World Symphony): "I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral color."  And he stated that the famous, languid English Horn melody in the second movement of the Symphony (known in popular music as "Goin' Home") was a sketch for a larger cantata or opera based on Longfellow's Hiawatha (which he never completed).

Was Dvorak's understanding of these musical traditions clouded by lack of authentic knowledge? Absolutely. (He wrote, for example: "I found that the music of the Negroes and of the Indians was practically identical", and that "the music of the two races bore a remarkable similarity to the music of Scotland."  It is thought that this may have been a reference to the use of the pentatonic scale in each of these traditions, but it is clear that his grasp of indigenous music was, to say the least, not up to modern ethnomusicological standards. And Dvorak's own mature, well-developed European-bred musical style is never far away in the New World Symphony.

Even so, this was an earnest and respectful effort to absorb a new musical language and make it his own. And there is no question that it also embodies the vastness of scale that Dvorak encountered in the American West as well as the bustling spirit of an expanding nation. This thrilling and moving masterpiece has to be seen as genuinely "American," and a miracle of Dvorak's imagination and genius.

-Mitchell Sardou Klein

Tickets and information about our upcoming performance of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” can be found at https://peninsulasymphony.org/march2019