Symphony No. 9, "From the New World"

Antonín Dvořák

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Date of Composition: 1893
Duration: 41 minutes

Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) was born near Prague, where he received much of his musical training. His first jobs were playing in Czech dance bands and theatre orchestras. On the side, he wrote music, eventually turning to composition as a primary pursuit. At the time, nationalistic pride was growing throughout Europe, and by the late 1870s, Dvořák began incorporating Slavic musical styles into his compositions, resulting in works with titles such as Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances.

By 1891, Dvořák was serving as composition professor at the Prague Conservatory. His achievements and status gained notice across Europe and even in the United States, where the very first U.S. music conservatories were being established. Jeanette Thurber, philanthropical founder of the National Conservatory of Music, decided to bring Dvořák to New York to oversee the relatively new school. Thurber hoped he would influence young American art music composers to establish a national sound, as he had done in his own Czech-inspired music. Dvořák accepted an exorbitant salary offer and started in the fall of 1892. As the new director, his ideas created a bit of a stir. He was quoted in the New York Herald, saying Americans should look to the traditional music of African Americans for material on which to build a national style. At the time, most classical musicians who lived and worked in U.S. urban centers had never experienced the music of any Black communities first-hand. They could not conceive of such a thing.

Still, Dvořák provided an example in his 1893 Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World,” in which he replicates what he believed was representative of African American and Indigenous musical traditions. For inspiration, he looked to spirituals learned from his Black composition students and to Longfellow’s Hiawatha—which had had a profound, if inauthentic, influence on what U.S. citizens perceived as Native life. The composer’s resulting four-movement symphony retains an undeniably European style while referencing newly composed themes meant to sound as if they came from these American traditions. The most notable is found in the slow second movement, in which the English horn plays a spiritual-like tune. William Arms Fischer, one of Dvořák’s students, added words to the melody in 1922, resulting in the song “Going Home,” but the tune itself, like all the themes in the symphony, was composed by Dvořák. The work was a resounding success from its 1893 New York Philharmonic premiere and continues to be a favorite of audiences today.

© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023