Pictured: Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset.
“The Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, Op. 95, B. 178 (Czech: Symfonie č. 9 e moll “Z nového světa”), popularly known as the New World Symphony, was composed by Antonín Dvořák in 1893 while he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America from 1892 to 1895. It has been described as one of the most popular of all symphonies.
Dvořák was interested in Native American music and the African-American spirituals he heard in North America. While director of the National Conservatory he encountered an African-American student, Harry T. Burleigh, who sang traditional spirituals to him. Burleigh, later a composer himself, said that Dvořák had absorbed their ‘spirit’ before writing his own melodies.
The symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, and premiered on 16 December 1893, at Carnegie Hall conducted by Anton Seidl.
In a 2008 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, prominent musicologist Joseph Horowitz states that African-American spirituals were a major influence on Dvořák’s music written in North America…Dvořák did, it seems, borrow rhythms from the music of his native Bohemia, as notably in his Slavonic Dances, and the pentatonic scale in some of his music written in North America from African-American and/or Native American sources. Statements that he borrowed melodies are often made but seldom supported by specifics. One verified example is the song of the Scarlet Tanager in the Quartet. Michael Steinberg writes that a flute solo theme in the first movement of the symphony resembles the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. Leonard Bernstein averred that the symphony was truly multinational in its foundations.
Dvořák was influenced not only by music he had heard, but by what he had seen, in America. He wrote that he would not have composed his American pieces as he had, if he had not seen America. It has been said that Dvořák was inspired by the American “wide open spaces” such as prairies he may have seen on his trip to Iowa in the summer of 1893. Notices about several performances of the symphony include the phrase “wide open spaces” about what inspired the symphony and/or about the feelings it conveys to listeners.
Dvořák was also influenced by the style and techniques used by earlier classical composers including Beethoven and Schubert. The falling fourths and timpani strokes in the New World Symphony’s Scherzo movement evoke the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony (Symphony No. 9). The use of flashbacks to prior movements in the New World Symphony’s last movement is reminiscent of Beethoven quoting prior movements in the opening Presto of the Choral Symphony’s final movement.
At the premiere in Carnegie Hall, the end of every movement was met with thunderous clapping and Dvořák felt obliged to stand up and bow. This was one of the greatest public triumphs of Dvořák’s career. When the symphony was published, several European orchestras soon performed it. Alexander Mackenzie conducted the London Philharmonic Society in the European premiere on 21 June 1894. Clapham says the symphony became “one of the most popular of all time” and at a time when the composer’s main works were being welcomed in no more than ten countries, this symphony reached the rest of the musical world and has become a “universal favorite”. It had been performed [as of 1978] more often “than any other symphony at the Royal Festival Hall, London” and is in “tremendous demand in Japan”.
The theme from the Largo was adapted into the spiritual-like song “Goin’ Home” (often mistakenly considered a folk song or traditional spiritual) by Dvořák’s pupil William Arms Fisher, who wrote the lyrics in 1922.”