Friday, September 25, 2009

Dvořák's New World: The Video

The Harrisburg Symphony will be performing Dvořák's New World Symphony at the opening concert of the season - along with Rossini's Semiramide Overture and, joined by violinist Alexander Kerr, a violin concerto by Astor Piazzolla, "The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires." Performances are Saturday, October 3rd, 8pm, and Sunday, October 4th, 3pm, at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

You can read more about Dvořák's Symphony in one of my "up close & personal" posts here - with more information about Dvořák's time spent in the United States, here.

Here are videos (posted at YouTube) with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World," by Antonin Dvořák, recorded in 1985. (Because of time limits to video-posts of 10 minutes or so, the 2nd & 4th Movements are broken into two parts.)

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The 1st Movement begins hesitantly with a slow introduction with fits and starts, including some fragments (motives) that will become important once the main part of the movement begins at 2:01 with its horn-call theme. A secondary theme begins at 3:10, contrasting in its narrower range but leads to the "real" second theme which begins with the flute solo at 4:16, a theme that might remind you of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." It's not that much of a contrast to the main theme: the rhythms are very similar and both are built on triadic motion rather than something more linear. At 5:01, the solo horn begins developing these ideas with fragments tossed around from each of these three musical ideas, becoming increasingly more unstable, harmonically and dramatically until - at 6:32 - the opening main theme returns quietly in the horn. The narrow secondary theme returns at 7:14 and the real second theme at 8:19 (both in the flute).

At 8:48, the composer brings back a fanfare-like version of the 2nd Theme but combines it with the opening of the main theme at 8:56, bringing this first movement to well-rounded if dramatic close. We'll hear more from these musical ideas - even if just suggestions of them - in other movements of the symphony, as well.
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2nd Movement (Part 1) - after mysterious chords begin the slow movement, the English Horn enters at 0:50 with the famous "Largo Theme" which later became a popular arrangement called "Goin' Home," inspired by the similarity of Dvořák's tune to what sounded like a Negro Spiritual. At 4:52, a contrasting section begins, followed at 8:24 by a new, lighter dance-like interruption that ends the first clip but continues in the next one.

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2nd Movement (Part 2) - begins with the 'dance interruption' that builds to the return of the main theme of the first movement combined with the first phrase of the English horn theme, which then returns at 0:57. At 1:26, Dvořák gives the last part of the theme to the concertmaster: one of those great smaller moments is that "catch-in-the-breath" at 1:42 as if we're saying good-bye to an old friend.

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The 3rd Movement - Scherzo - is a dance movement that Dvořák says was inspired by a scene in Longfellow's Hiawatha, where the guests at the feast begin to dance. Today, it might sound more like Bohemian peasants to us. At 1:49, a contrasting lyrical theme is introduced by the winds but at 2:34, the initial rhythmic dance-theme returns. Another contrasting dance, more typical of Czech folk-dances, begins at 3:38. Then at 5:38, we start going back to the opening section again, the first contrasting theme, after a switch from the minor key to the major key (note the 'raised eyebrow' at 6:38) returning at 6:39 to round off the dance with reminiscences from the 1st Movement starting at 8:01.

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The 4th Movement begins with a series of chords before stating its main theme - at 0:16 - that has the flavor of a folk song: in the key of E Minor, it should have a D-sharp in it, according to the traditional "rules" of classical music, but like many folk songs, it has a D-natural instead. At 1:15, there's a new idea, "skipping" along with a lot of D-naturals as well. At 1:53. a new contrasting lyrical theme is announced in the clarinet. Then, at 2:44, he introduces another idea in the violins (usually overshadowed by the fanfare in the trumpets). Then at 3:14, there's yet another fragment introduced which nobody ever suggested should be a quote from "Three Blind Mice," but hey... With that, he ends the opening "Exposition" of the movement, and begins tearing all of them apart and remixing them in the "Development" which begins at 3:45 - note the reappearance of the first theme, menacingly in the horns at 3:52. Hear how he takes the opening of that first theme at 4:13, then answers it with a fragment of the "skipping" theme two seconds later. That's how he builds unity out of the material but keeps pushing your forward, expanding the material into further directions.

But what's going on at 4:34 in the woodwinds? Isn't that the theme from the 2nd Movement, now played in a faster tempo? Underneath that, the strings are quietly playing a variation on the stately opening theme that now almost bounces along like "Yankee Doodle"! He's bringing back ideas from the other movements to tie the whole symphony together in the finale.

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Moving on to the second clip from the Finale - it starts off with Dvořák sneaking in a re-statement of the main theme of the first movement in the basses just before reaching a climax with the finale's main theme in the brass at 0:14 and again at 0:31. After that, it breaks down to a more subdued, lyrical passage. At 1:16 the strings play the finale's 2nd theme (see 1:55 from the first clip) but reverses the roles: originally, it was in the clarinet with a sprightly answer in the cellos; now the theme is mostly in the cellos, with the sprightly response in the woodwinds. At 2:07, the Largo theme returns in a nostalgic mood, capped by the horn theme from the first movement in the horns at 2:48. One dramatic outburst at 3:07 leads to those chords at 3:49 - trying to ignore the timpani, have you heard them before? They're the chords that mysteriously opened and closed the 2nd Movement - but what a difference a finale makes! Winding down again, the Largo theme floats almost like a memory at 4:15. Oh, and do you recognize the little woodwind blips at 4:18? That's from the main theme of the third movement, the scherzo! Two more climactic statements of the finale's main theme occur at 4:51 - lots of pulling around that D-natural or should it be D-sharp - and again at 5:08, this time supported by the first movement's main theme in the horns, bringing the symphony to a dramatic close - and a unified one - in E Minor, rather than switching over to the brighter Major key as most minor-key symphonies would normally do for a triumphant conclusion.
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By the way, if you wonder what conductors bring to performances of the same work over different performances across the years, here is a clip of the New World Finale which von Karajan conducted with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1966, about nineteen years earlier!
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No matter where it was written, no matter what may have inspired Dvořák to write it, it still basically sounds like a Czech symphony full of Bohemian folk elements which shouldn't be so surprising, after all. Wherever Dvořák may have been living at the time, his roots were still in his native Bohemia. Call it cross-pollination, if you want, but the stimulus of living in New York in 1893 no doubt helped it become what it is - one of Dvořák's greatest works and one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire today.

- Dr. Dick

1 comment:

  1. Stanislaw SkrowakzewskiSeptember 27, 2009 at 12:39 AM

    Nice one Dr. Dick!!!! I'm definitely seeing Stuart's performance!!!