Imagining the New World

Dvorak programme

Like Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto and Clair de lune, another of those concert pieces that suffers from over-familiarity is the New World symphony (1893) of Antonin Dvořák (1841–1904).

It was one of the very first symphonies that I played with my local youth orchestra. Hard as it is to put aside the jaded accumulations of convention and the Hovis ad, I was reminded how remarkable it is in concert at the Barbican in 2015—as if one could wish for anything more after hearing the divine Hélène Grimaud play the Ravel piano concerto in the first half.

The symphony was commissioned by the New York Phil during Dvořák’s stay as director of the National Conservatory there from 1892 to 1895—when he also composed the cello concerto. At a time when white settler-colonialists were busy taming the Native Americans they hadn’t already massacred, anthropologists like the Franz Boas circle were taking such indigenous cultures seriously. Dvořák too proclaimed an interest in Native American music and African-American spirituals:

I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.

However, while he may have heard Iroquois performers in Prague in 1879, in the States he had little exposure apart from hearing the African-American student Harry Burleigh at the Conservatory singing spirituals for him. Indeed, commenting on the symphony, Dvořák wrote:

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 colour.

Actually, as this NYT article points out, American composers such as Henry Schoenefeld were already making experiments in incorporating African-American musics (see also Tom Service’s introduction).

Rafael Kubelík was renowned for his interpretation; here he is with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1977:

and Celibidache with the Munich Phil in 1991:

Mahler, who corresponded with Dvořák and performed his works, went on to have a more lasting relationship with New York. The next generations of central European composers such as Janâček and Bartók would have a deeper ethnographic interest in documenting the musical cultures of their homelands; and among WAM composers the fashion for Turquerie, chinoiserie, and the sounds of the Mystic East continued.

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