Brussels Philharmonic | expo: Antonín Dvorák

expo: Antonín Dvorák

A new world

In 1892, the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) arrived in America with his wife and children. Jeannette Meyer Thurber, founder of the National Conservatory in New York, had enticed him with a salary of 15,000 dollars per year (about 25 times what he was earning in his home town of Prague) to come and bring a new sound to music in America. Whether his Ninth Symphony is an authentic musical representation of the land of hope and promise may give rise to some doubt. But what is certain is that the work was a great hit in the United States and far beyond; Leonard Bernstein even described the work as ‘truly multinational in its foundations.’

When Dvořák accepted Thurber’s invitation to develop a national American music, he was at the height of his career. As compared to Europe, American classical music was in its infancy. Thurber saw Dvořák as the ideal person: he had the necessary experience, enjoyed an international reputation, and was interested in folk music.

"The Americans expect great things of me. I am to show them the way into the Promised Land, the realm of a new, independent art, in short, a national style of music!

The Ninth Symphony ‘From the New World' was Dvořák’s first work after his appointment. The première, held on 16 December 1893 in New York’s Carnegie Hall, was immediately a great success. Many people heard in the melodies the longstanding story of immigration on the American continent.

"I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. ... These are the folk songs of America, and your composers must turn to them. ... They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will. ... The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him."
- Antonín Dvořák

Dvořák did indeed draw inspiration from the negro spirituals of enslaved Africans and by the music of the indigenous population, such as the literary epic ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ by Longfellow. He sought inspiration for his distinct style by requesting spirituals and plantation songs from Henry Thacker Burleigh, a student at the National Conservatory.

But as he himself emphasised: “It is merely the spirit of the African-American and Indian melodies which I have tried to reproduce in my new symphony. I have not actually used any of the melodies.” Elements from the musical history of European immigrants can also be heard: he subtly incorporated Bohemian, German, French and Scottish folk music into his symphony and combined elements from both the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ worlds. The symphony thus does not sound entirely American, but rather ‘multinational’ – as Leonard Bernstein had dubbed the work.

Soon after his period in New York – he only spent three years there – Dvořák expressed his hope for the future of American music in an analytical article titled ‘Music in America’:

"I must give full expression to my firm conviction, and the hope that just as this nation has already surpassed so many others in marvellous inventions and feats of engineering and commerce, and has made an honourable place for itself in literature in one short century, so it must assert itself in the other arts, and especially in the art of music."

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