Friday, September 12, 2014

Antonín Dvořák Dressed to the Nines

No. 164 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

This week’s main work – a second of four “ninths” – is Dvořák‘s symphony no. 9, which too has a particular story attached to it.

In a Once Upon the Internet post from the Spring, I discussed how Dvořák came to America to lead the National Conservatory in New York. As director and teacher, Dvorak instructed students to find inspiration in folk or national music – as he had done with his own works.

Among the works from that period, there are three specific works that Dvořák composed in America: a string quartet, a suite for two pianos (both subtitled “American”) and his ninth symphony subtitled “From The New World” (and not, as it is sometimes referred to “the New World Symphony”). I think this is significant.

Dvorak scholars suggest that some of the themes found in the Ninth Symphony are based on native or African American music, as was for example DeliusAmerican Rhapsody. In fact, the haunting theme of the symphony’s famous “largo” movement was later adapted into the spiritual-like song "Goin' Home" by Dvořák's pupil William Arms Fisher, who wrote the lyrics in 1922, 30 some years after the symphony had been premiered. What is factual, however, is that an African-American National Conservatory student, Harry T. Burleigh, sang traditional spirituals to Dvořák and said that he had absorbed their `spirit' before writing his own melodies.

We can safely infer that Dvořák’s Symphony isn’t a showcase of – or based upon – American music, but rather is a Czeck composer’s musical impressions of his stay in America. Thus to all it “New World” music is a stretch…

As for Dvořák’s suggestion that American composers “appropriate” native and African American music as their own has only partly influenced what will become the American “National School”. The deep-rooted syncopated rhythms that will morph into the Blues and Jazz will have a much bigger influence in a truly idiomatic and national sound – the one of Gershwin, and Kern and Copland.

Today’s podcast provides a “cover-to-cover” copy of a Royal Philharmonic recording on their home label (distributer by Intersound in 1993), which also features two other works.

The Carnival overture is part of a "Nature, Life and Love" triptych of overtures composed around the same time period as the Symphony. This overture constitutes the second ("Life") part; the other two parts of the trilogy are In Nature's Realm, Op. 91 ("Nature") and Othello, Op. 93 ("Love"). One of Dvorak’s most lively works, it grabs you by the neck and doesn’t let go until the very last bar.

Dvorák's 1883 Scherzo capriccioso for orchestra, is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable musical bonbons in the repertoire. There really is a great deal of capriciousness to this work - at the very start of the piece the solo horn playfully begins the main tune in the "wrong" key -- B flat -- and it is up to the rest of the orchestra to find the way over to the real home base: D flat major. The main tune is an almost circus-like affair; a second melody arrives in the guise of a waltz. During the middle of the Scherzo the cor anglais manages, on the strength of simple melodic beauty, to temporarily substitute a little calm D major for the energetic playfulness that has thus far been the work's focus. A horn duet begins the Scherzo's coda, which then proceeds to afford the harpist a chance to make a Nutcracker-like arpeggio solo; a rousing climax is drawn after the solo horn once again chides the orchestra to action.

I think you will love his music too.