Commisioned Programme Note for CSO
© Katie Morgan (2014)
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(1841 - 1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World"
Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák, was born in the Bohemian town of Nelahozeves. Exposed to music at a young age at his father's inn, where local folk music was a part of every day life, Dvorak was already a reputable musician before the age of twelve. After graduating from an organ school in 1859, Dvorak continued to live in Prague, where he made his living as a virtuoso violist, playing in inns and theatre orchestras, and also taught to supplement his income. It was not until the 1860s that Dvorak began to compose, and by 1864 Dvorak had already composed various works, including Symphonies 1 and 2, and the opera King and Collier, although they had never been performed. The styles of Dvorak’s earlier works are almost reminiscent of Wagner and Liszt - influences he would abandon in years to come. He won the Austrian State Stipendium three times (1874, 1876-7), gaining the attention of Brahms, who secured the publisher Simrock for some of his works in 1878. Foreign performances multiplied, notably of the Slavonic Dances, Symphony No. 6, and the Stabat Mater. Dvorák later composed the works which were to be well received in England: The Spectre's Bride (1884) and the Requiem Mass (1890) for Birmingham, Symphony No. 7 for the Philharmonic Society (1885) and St. Ludmilla for Leeds (1886), besides receiving an honorary doctorate from Cambridge. In 1890, Dvorak visited Russia whilst he continued to launch new works in Prague and London and began teaching at the Prague Conservatory in 1891. As director of the National Conservatory in New York (1892-5), Dvorak taught composition, whilst in the meantime, producing the String Quartet in F, the String Quintet in Eb, the Cello Concerto, and his best-known work Symphony No.9 ("From the New World"). This work, said to be reminiscent of several folk songs of the black population in the southern United States, was dispersed with images and colours of Dvorak's stay in America - the New World. Yet, whilst using folk melodies that are said to be of American origin, Dvorak still remained loyal to his Czech nationality.
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World", was Dvorak’s last symphonic composition, of which there were nine of them to follow in Beethoven's footsteps. Symphony No. 9, originally labelled No. 5, because of the order in which his publisher published them, is very characteristic of the Romantic era. A typical Romantic characteristic is Dvorak’s use of the traditional four movement structure, resulting in an overall duration of approximately forty minutes. He is the only major composer to use melodies of the Black population of America in his works, and with Black music having such a potent effect on him (in addition to the elements of Red Indian music used in the symphony), Dvorak mentioned that his stay in the United States was "a legacy which makes free use of the Negro's musical language." Despite the minor key of the symphony, which some believe is indicative of the composer longing for his Czechoslovakian homeland, the overall tone and feeling of the music is one of vitality and energy.
The first movement entitled Adagio: Allegro molto, commences with an introduction set in an adagio rhythm with a time signature of 4/8. The long introduction ends with the main theme of the movement presented by the French horns, before the remainder of the movement, still in the key of E minor, changes to an Allegro Molto section in 2/4 time. The main theme is later repeated other by the oboe, and later the in the horns which are joined by the trombones. Later the two themes in the major key, with sharply accented syncopated rhythms, are, whilst having their origins in the music of America's south, very typical of Slavonic music with which Dvorak was well acquainted. The second theme in the first movement from "From the New World" introduced by the flute and echoed by French horn and trumpet, is thought to be based upon the song, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, which is popular today. Finishing off the movement is a small coda which is a little more flamboyant than the previous themes, with the heavy use of the brass section, perhaps indicative of Wagner's orchestral writing.
The second movement of Symphony No. 9 in E minor is the most popular section of the work by far. The movement begins in the key of D flat major, with a sombre chordal passage brought called out by the horns, trumpet, and trombone before the famous melody is introduced by the Cor Anglais. Many critics have called it ‘the most beautiful use of the English Horn found in all orchestral literature’, and has been ‘compared to ‘a homesick immigrant, who has come to the New World in search of fortune.’ The famous theme is accompanied by strings, before it is later repeated by clarinets and then by the horns. The second theme of the second movement played by flute and oboe, is in the modulated key of E major, before the first theme is repeated. This puts the entire movement in an A-B-A format. The melodies in this particular movement pose a particular problem for musical historians. No one is really sure as to what source Dvorak used for inspiration for the tunes. While some believe that the basis for the melody came from an Osage Indian song he heard in Iowa, William Armes Fisher, a fellow teacher at the National Conservatory, said that Dvorak told him that all the music in the symphony was entirely original, whilst others believe that it was inspired by Longfellow's Hiawatha just he composed the second movement. It is possible that Dvorak give different reasons to one nation than another, in attempt to compel more people to praise his work.
The scherzo, marked Molto vivace, is again in the orthodox Romantic style, and again uses the A-B-A format, still in E minor for the first theme. The second theme, which modulates to E major, is very simplistic, reminding the listener of the Largo movement's opening. As with the second movement, this theme is illustrated by flutes and oboes with string accompaniment. The "B" section is a Trio, and modulates back to E minor to begin this section. The primary theme is a light, ebullient dance, whilst the second theme is reminds one of Dvorak’s Bohemian origin. The final “A” section is followed by a small coda, based upon "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
The fourth movement, Allegro con fuoco, is again in the key of E minor, and is regarded as a remarkable illustration of Dvorak's symphonic technique. Apart from the use of the melodies heard previously in the symphony, Dvorak additionally uses new melodies. The first theme of the movement is an eruption of sound and tone colours after the introduction. This theme, bellowed by French horns and trumpets, is also very characteristic of Dvorak, clearly showing his nationalistic preferences. After the second theme is introduced, the themes from the previous three movements are re-introduced, particularly the first themes from all three previous movements. The symphony closes after a resplendent and gargantuan finale.
© Katie Morgan 2005