The Clinton Symphony Orchestra will be kicking off their 66th season on Saturday, September 21 at 7:30 pm. The concert, entitled “From the Countryside” will take place in the Centennial Auditorium of Sterling High School in Illinois. More information about the concert may be found here. Please enjoy the following program notes about this work.
Antonín Dvořák –
Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 95, ‘From the New World’
In 1889 Antonín Leopold Dvořák (1841-1904) became a professor of composition at the Prague conservatory, where he was known as a tough instructor who demanded that his students nurture their own voice. It was his mode of instruction that brought him to the attention of American philanthropist, Jeannette Thurber, who wanted to encourage American composers to create a uniquely American form of musical expression. To this end, she helped establish the National Conservatory of Music of America and invited Dvořák to head the institution, at the princely sum of $15,000 per annum.
Dvořák knew what Thurber expected of him when he accepted the offer. As he explained to one of his Prague colleagues:
I am to show them the way into the Promised Land, a new, independent art, in short a national style of music!
Within a few days of his arrival in New York in September 1892, Dvořák began to assemble the materials he would consult in fashioning a new symphony to showcase his nationalist intent for his students.
Dvořák recognized that his knowledge of American folk and customs was limited, but he knew, as well, that the country was a motley mix of various cultural strains. He chose to concentrate on two cultures, the native Indian and the African American. He felt, with some reason, that other prominent cultures were still too closely connected with their European roots to be seriously considered as singularly American. To him, then, the “inspiration for truly national [American] music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants.” Despite protestations from American composers, Dvořák maintained his opinion until he departed American shores in 1895.
In his search for authentic American music material, Dvořák consulted with music critic Henry Krehbiel on Amerindian songs and chants and with a student at the Conservatory on African American slave songs. The student, Harry (Henry) Thacker Burleigh, had learned the tone and timbre of slave songs from his grandfather. His mother had inculcated this tradition in Burleigh, as well, when she sang the old songs as she went about her household chores.
Dvořák began the preliminary sketches for his new symphony in January 1893 and by mid-February; he was hard at work on the full score. He completed the work in May, and it received its premiere on December 16, 1893, in Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The symphony was an outstanding success, with performances quickly scheduled by other American and European orchestras.
Some controversy arose almost immediately over the “American themes” that Dvořák utilized in his Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 95, ‘From the New World’. The composer himself no doubt fueled the flames when he stated in an article for the New York Herald that American composers could find everything they needed for a national music in the melodies of African Americans, specifically referring to plantation and work songs, as well as minstrel show tunes. Burleigh wrote, “Dvořák saturated himself with the spirit of these old tunes and then invented his own themes.” Some confusion came about particularly after William Arms Fisher, a student of Dvořák’s at the conservatory, put lyrics to the Largo melody to produce Goin’ Home, which soon became a ‘spiritual’ incorrectly credited as a plantation song.
In fact, Dvořák became caught up in an idea to compose an opera or cantata based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, a project that Burleigh attests held the Czech composer’s attention throughout his tenure at the Conservatory. In his Herald article in December 1893, Dvořák wrote that he drew the Largo second movement from sketches “for a later work, either a cantata or opera…which will be based upon Longfellow’s Hiawatha.” The precise inspiration for the famous Largo is the famine scene from the poet’s epic tale.
Dvořák further wrote the third movement Scherzo was “suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance.” Yet the composer wanted to quell any contrary ideas that he had used any melodies or tunes not of his own design.
A more appropriate subtitle for the Symphony No 9 may be Song of Hiawatha rather than From the New World. One should bear in mind, however, that the work is Dvořák’s letter home, from the new world to the old world. Notwithstanding all the attention to the influences of his temporary home, Symphony No 9 is a Bohemian symphony written by a homesick Czech composer.
Program notes are graciously written for us by William Driver.