Friday, September 25, 2009

Dvořák in the New World: Part 1

The Harrisburg Symphony opens the new season on Saturday, October 3rd (8pm) and Sunday, October 4th (3pm) at the Forum. The program is entitled "Old & New Worlds," and Stuart Malina will conduct a concert that opens with the overture to Rossini's opera Semiramide, continues with a violin concerto from Argentina's Tango King, Astor Piazzolla, a tribute to Vivaldi called "The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires" (with soloist Alexander Kerr returning to the Forum) and concludes with Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, "From the New World."

(You can hear a podcast of my conversation with Stuart about this first concert here, and a similar conversation about the whole 2009-2010 season, here.)

In this post, you can watch a video of the entire symphony - the 1985 recording of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on Telemondial - and follow along with a musical analysis timed to the video clips.

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Antonín Dvořák's “New World” Symphony is probably one of the best known “American” works in the repertoire even though the composer never thought of himself as an American composer. Yes, the work was composed here – in fact, mostly at 327 E. 17th Street in New York City, just a few blocks from the National Conservatory where he was teaching – and it was given its first performance at Carnegie Hall, that great palace of American culture, in December of 1893, just two years after the building opened its doors for its first concert (which included Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky as one of the conductors on that program).

Dvořák's new symphony was the first world premiere of a work by an internationally famous composer to be given by the New York Philharmonic, then in its 51st season (and officially known as the Philharmonic Society of New York City). It was conducted by the recently appointed music director Anton Seidl who had been Richard Wagner's assistant conductor at Bayreuth and who had been a friend and supporter of Dvořák's in Vienna.

American or not, Dvořák was very important to the development of an American voice for young composers of this country in the 1890s.

Until 1875, when John Knowles Paine finally succeeded in convincing Harvard University to establish a music department (the faculty felt it was not a subject worthy of being included in their academic pantheon), any American composer needed to go to Germany to study. In 1885, Jeanette Thurber (see right), wife of a New York industrialist and millionaire, established the National Conservatory of Music which was housed in two renovated homes on the 100 block of Manhattan's E. 17th Street. It was her dream to have a federally funded music school that would allow American musicians to study in America and even though legislation incorporating the school on a national level was passed by Congress and signed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891, it never occurred.

She needed, she felt, a “figurehead” to attract students and contributors to the school, so through contacts in England, she connected with Dvořák who, with some reluctance, agreed to accept her offer of $15,000 and leave Europe behind him, at least for two years. He was to arrive in October, 1892, after making a farewell tour playing his “Dumky” Trio and conducting his latest work, a set of three overtures which included the famous “Carnival” Overture.

His arrival was to coincide with the 400th Anniversary celebrations of Columbus' Discovery of America but the text of the work he was to conduct upon his arrival, the libretto for a choral work called “The American Flag,” didn't arrive in time and so he composed a more generic Te Deum which he conducted on October 21st, shortly after his arrival.

In addition to “heading” the school – she was the school's official business administrator, so there was little for him to “run” – she expected Dvořák to found an American school of composition. She also wanted him to write an American opera, preferably on the story of Hiawatha which never got beyond a few sketches, though surprisingly some of them may have ended up in his new symphony. He taught composition and instrumentation, conducted and performed his music.

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On a very cold day that January, looking out onto E. 17th Street, he began writing what would eventually become this. It's the opening (see left) of his Symphony in E Minor which he called – at Mrs. Thurber's suggestion – the Symphony “From the New World” and which we know more familiarly as the “New World” Symphony. He completed it in May and the New York Philharmonic premiered it that December. Each movement was met by wild applause and cheers. Dvořák wrote home that he felt like royalty, the way the New York public treated him.

Dvořák filled many sketch books with his ideas and the ones from his first months in New York are full of themes he would still use even years later (or some, not at all). The main triadic motive of the “New World” Symphony's first movement was originally “rather stiff” and in F Major, not E Minor. The Largo was originally in C Major, a rather bright-sounding key, but when he came up with a chord progression he liked, he found it could modulate from the first movement's E Minor to D-flat Major, so he transposed the sketch up a half-step to this new key where it then stayed: the mellower sound of D-flat, especially in the strings, has such a profoundly different effect than the same passage would in C Major, it would seem to us – at least in hindsight – to have been a no-brainer. But such is not always the case.

One of the conservatory's students that year was an African-American singer and composer, Harry T. Burleigh, a native of Erie PA. He won a scholarship to study at the National Conservatory and was an assistant to Dvořák if not an actual student of his. He sang some “Negro spirituals” for him and his students and the story goes that Dvořák found in this music a whole wealth of possibilities on which composers could build an American voice.

One of Burleigh's responsibilities was to help Dvořák with his manuscripts: he copied out the parts from Dvořák's manuscript of his new symphony.

Some have said that the famous English horn solo in the slow movement, the “Largo,” is taken from a song composed by Burleigh, called “Goin' Home.” This is not quite accurate: “Goin' Home” was later arranged by another of his students, William Arms Fisher, who added his own lyrics to Dvořák's theme, publishing it in 1922.

In an article published in the New York Herald the day before the symphony's premiere, Dvořák wrote,

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"I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint and orchestral color."
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He said the slow movement was initially a sketch for a scene from a proposed cantata or opera based on Longfellow's Hiawatha and that the third movement was suggested by a scene where the Indians gather at the feast and dance.

Another article that year quoted him as explaining the similarities between Native American music and the music of the African-American, both of which he found similar to Scottish music – perhaps, at least, in their use of the pentatonic scale (something also in common with, say, Chinese music) or a rhythm called the "Scotch Snap" (also found in some folk music from Lombardy in northern Italy). Not that they were interchangeable but they had, in some respects, common roots: it was this music Dvořák recommended to his students as a resource for finding their own voice, just as he had found his voice not in the Germanic style he was trained in at school but in the folk songs and dances he had grown up with in his native Bohemia.

It is odd, today, listening to this piece in hindsight for the melodies and rhythms sound nothing like what we consider “American” music to sound like – Native-American or African-American – as much as it sounds like a symphony by a Czech composer inspired by the fingerprints of his native culture and who was, quite definitely, more than a little homesick.

To be continued...

- Dr. Dick

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