In 1892, the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) arrived in America with his wife and two of his 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.’
Dvořák’s combination of various styles and cultures may well be the distinguishing feature of American music. One of the composers who excelled in this was George Gershwin (1898-1937). He knew better than anyone how to break down the barriers between musical genres. In his first orchestral work, Rhapsody in Blue, melodies and rhythms taken from the world of jazz blend in with classical forms to create an exciting composition that met with great acclaim from the celebrities of the European classical music scene as well.
Gershwin is considered one of the most popular American composers. His most important merit: breaking down boundaries between musical genres. Gershwin grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a place where composers of various origins worked alongside each other, exchanged ideas and where various past and present cultural expressions mingled. As a youngster, he practised the piano for hours and attended as many performances of his favourite composers and pianists as possible. During his composition classes with Charles Hambitzer, the emphasis was mainly on the music of Debussy, Ravel and Schönberg, but his subsequent teacher, Edward Kilenyi, pushed him in the direction of popular music. This would earn him more public success. The latter came in 1919 when the singer Al Jolson recorded the joyful number ‘Swanee’ by the young songwriter. It was immediately Gershwin’s greatest hit. This was followed by classics such as ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’, set to texts of his equally successful brother Ira. The two brothers increasingly worked together, for instance on the musical Strike Up The Band. Although the musical – a satire of America’s love of war – was not very successful, but its overture is still often performed as a concert opener.
But Gershwin was not satisfied with the success of his Broadway career. His fascination with the music of modern European composers such as Schönberg and Stravinsky impelled him to strive for a synthesis of the two worlds. In 1923, he was given the opportunity to achieve this when the jazz band leader Paul Whiteman asked him to write an orchestral work for a concert at the Aeolian Concert Hall in New York on 12 February 1924. Whiteman promoted the event as ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’, seeking to demonstrate the progress of popular music by performing new music that is inspired by jazz. Legend has it that Gershwin forgot all about this proposal until, in January 1924, he saw an announcement for the concert in a newspaper. He began composing like mad, and three weeks later put the final touches on his ‘American Rhapsody’. A few details that remained to be worked out, and these were resolved by Gershwin at the première by improvising at the piano.
A few years later, Gershwin described in a letter how the idea of the composition came to him:
As was customary practice on Broadway, Gershwin wrote out the original composition for two pianos. Based on that score, Ferde Grofé, the in-house arranger of Paul Whiteman’s jazz band, provided the orchestration. The make-up of the jazz band at the première in 1924 was very different from the orchestras that perform the Rhapsody in Blue nowadays: in addition to a much smaller ensemble, there was also a banjo and celesta in the very first arrangement. The famous opening glissando on the clarinet was initially written by Gershwin as a scale. During one of the many rehearsals, the clarinettist played it, for a joke, as a long glissando. That version, along with the rest of the work, is now embedded for all time in the collective memory.
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 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.
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. 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’: