The National Conservatory of Music in New York was founded in 1884 by the philanthropist Jeanette Thurber, who had the lofty plan of developing a new, uniquely American style of musical composition. She knew that to realise her ambition she needed a charismatic director and after looking round the world her choice fell on Antonín Dvořák, who at that time had gained an international reputation through the success of his seventh and eighth symphonies. She offered him a huge salary to come to New York - which in the event she never paid in full - and in September 1892 Dvořák arrived in New York to take up the appointment as director. Although the American years saw the composition of some of his greatest works it was not a happy time for Dvořák who suffered deeply from home sickness. He returned to Europe less that three years later, in the spring of 1895.
The New World Symphony was written in the winter and spring of 1893 in New York. Its première performance was given on the 16th December 1893 in Carnegie Hall and was a legendary success. No symphony before or since has been received with such enthusiasm. The end of every movement was met with cheering and sustained applause which continued until Dvořák stood up and bowed in acknowledgement. Since its première it has remained his most performed work, and is widely recognised as one of the greatest of all romantic symphonies.
Many myths have grown up around the New World Symphony, and one of the most persistent is that Dvořák incorporated American folk tunes in it. This myth was in part created by a popular song "Goin' Home" by William Arms Fisher, who fitted sentimental words to the tune of the second movement of the symphony. Many uninformed listeners believed that this pseudo Negro spiritual pre-dated the symphony, which of course it did not. Dvořák explicitly stated that he did not use any folk tunes, but had composed all the melodic material himself. He went on to say that he did make use of American folk idioms in the construction of his melodies, but that much of the folk music he had heard in America was very similar in character to that found in Europe. This was hardly surprising in the cultural mix that made up the land of "E Pluribus Unum". However, there was one exception. Dvořák found a unique folk style in the Negro spirituals and plantation songs, and proposed that this could be the root of a new American music - a remarkably astute observation for the time.
To understand the New World Symphony one should first look at the opening of the second movement, for it is here that its dark heart is revealed. It is probably the most famous and best known passage of music that Dvořák wrote, and has an emotional depth that can only be the result of profound introspection. First we hear a series of solemn chords played by the brass instruments and low woodwinds. It is music which is awe inspiring, threatening, and infused with a profound sadness. Then, rising out of this oppressive darkness comes the voice of the cor anglais playing a melody of exquisite beauty full of nostalgia, longing and sweet remembrance of things past. In this melody there is a clear reference to Negro music created by a simple device - the rising third at the cadence. Dvořák clearly understood the emotional power of the spirituals, with their restrained emotional sense of oppression and injustice, and could make use of their idioms to describe his own deep longing for his homeland in Bohemia. It is from this passage that the rest of the symphony is developed through a series of transformations. The closing phrase of cor anglais theme is re-shaped into the heroic theme of the first movement. Its opening phrase is elaborated into the gentle second subject of the first movement, and this in turn is further transformed to create the energetic fragmentary theme of the scherzo. Parts of it become small repeated driving melodic fragments which Dvořák uses to build the climaxes. The rising semitone in the top line of the solemn chords returns in octaves in the dramatic and energetic opening of the final movement. In fact there does not seem to be a note of the symphony that is not connected in some way to the opening of the second movement. In constructing his symphony in this way Dvořák extended the ideas of Beethoven and Schumann and created a unified cohesive work through an ingenious process of motivic development.
Outwardly the symphony follows the usual four movement form of the romantic period. The first movement has a slow introduction, beginning in a calm reflective mood, rudely and dramatically interrupted by the strings beginning a section of conflict which leads to an energetic allegro with contrasting moments of heroic grandeur and relaxed lyricism. The slow movement has a particular American influence in its construction, but it is a literary rather than musical one. Before coming to America Dvořák had been very impressed by Longfellow's poem The Song of Hiawatha, and he even had plans for writing an opera based on it. He never wrote the opera, but he did say that this second movement described the forest funeral of Minnehaha: one of the most emotional parts of the poem. The solemn chords and cor anglais tune describe Hiawatha grieving after the loss of his wife. As the movement progresses the grief gives way to a new section describing the funeral procession moving, slowly and with dignity through the snow bound woods, given an inevitability by the walking pizzicato bass line. In the next section we hear that, despite the tragedy, life is continuing throughout the forest: an idea added by Dvořák. Bird song is heard in trills and triplets passed round the orchestra, and the music builds to a tremendous climax as the flames of the funeral pyre carry the soul of Minnehaha to the Islands of the blessed. The heroic music of the first movement returns to suggest new resolution and hope, but only momentarily before the cor anglais tune returns to close the movement, perhaps more in resignation than in grief. The scherzo too has roots in Longfellow's work. The vibrant energetic first section describes an Indian dance, and its gentle second subject the cooing of white doves. The trio evokes a village band, but rather more in the style of Europe than America. The final movement is very free in form, bringing back much of the material of the previous movements within a dramatic and energetic framework. The solemn chords are heard again, this time on the whole orchestra, before the movement reaches its triumphant coda. However the symphony does not end in a blaze of colour, but with a chord on the wind and brass instruments which enigmatically fades to nothing.
Although there is much that is American in the New World Symphony it is not a uniquely American work. Leonard Bernstein aptly described it as "truly multinational in its foundations". Its folk idioms are drawn from a rich mix of cultures: the Negro plantations, the Scottish straths, the woods of Bohemia and the Russian steppes. There is something for everyone to call his own. But more than that Dvořák evokes an emotion that everyone feels at some time for which the Welsh have the eloquent word "hiraeth": a longing for ones own country. Born out of his own yearning to return to Bohemia and forged into the opening of the second movement it suffuses the entire work through his ingenious composition and gives the symphony its emotional depth and universal popularity.
Dvořák's New World Symphony was performed by the Portobello orchestra on the 26th November 2011, conducted by Anthony Weeden.back