“My Lord is not at home”

Image: Parish Church of St. Malachy, Hillsborough, Co. Down.

From: Chapter Fourteen (1771-1772) of Benjamin Franklin in London (2016) by George Goodwin:

“Hillsborough, though, was not absent from Ireland. He was in Dublin at the same time as (Richard) Jackson and Franklin. Moving in the same circles, they encountered each other at Dublin Castle, where they all dined as guests of the Lord Lieutenant, Marquess Townshend. The occasion went well: Hillsborough was absolutely charming. He insisted that they come to stay with him and his family at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast…

…To cap it all, when Franklin left, Hillsborough told him he would not just like to see him in London but often…

Franklin succinctly tells the story:

When I had been a little while returned to London I waited on him to thank him for his civilities in Ireland, and to discourse with him on a Georgia affair. The porter told me he was not at home. I left my card, went another time, and received the same answer…I made two more visits, and received the same answer. The last time was on a levee day…the porter, seeing me, came out and surlily chid the coachman…then turning to me, said, “My Lord is not at home.” I have never since been nigh him, and we have only abused one another at a distance.

…one can also interpret Hillsborough’s conduct in terms of the aristocratic social conventions of the day: whereby, face to face, one hid one‘s true feelings under a guise of good manners, only to reveal them later in a public forum such as Parliament or more directly through one‘s actions. Whatever Hillsborough’s reasons, the two episodes back-to-back merely served to increase Franklin’s loathing. He now said of Hillsborough, “I know him to be as double and deceitful as any man I ever met with.” This was quite something, considering Franklin’s long dealings with Thomas Penn and the Reverend William Smith.”

From Wikipedia:

“Absentee landlords were a highly significant issue in the history of Ireland. During the course of 16th and 17th centuries, most of the land in Ireland was confiscated from Irish Catholic landowners during the Plantations of Ireland and granted to Scottish and English settlers who were members of the established churches (the Church of England and the Church of Ireland at the time); in Ulster, many of the landowners were Scottish Presbyterians. Seized land was given to Scottish and English nobles and soldiers, some of whom rented it out to the Irish, while they themselves remained residents of Scotland and England. By 1782 the Irish patriot Henry Grattan deplored that some £800,000 was transferred annually to such landlords. He attempted to place an extra tax on remittances to the British. But many absentees also reinvested part of their rents into roads and bridges, to improve local economies, that are still seen today. A notable beneficial absentee in the 19th century was Lord Palmerston, who went into debt to develop his part of Sligo; an investment that eventually paid off.

By the 1800s resentment grew as not only were the absentee landlords Protestant (while most tenants were Catholic and forbidden to inherit land), but their existence meant that the wealth of the land was always exported. This system became particularly detrimental to the native population during the Great Irish Famine when, despite Ireland being a net exporter of food, millions starved, died of disease, or emigrated. In the years following, the land issue with the Irish Land League’s Land War became a significant issue in Ireland. The land issue was one of the historic factors which resulted in Ireland’s troubled history until the 1920s, though it had largely been addressed legislatively by 1903 in the Irish Land Acts.”

David Hume (1711-1776)

From: Chapter Fourteen (1771-1772) of Benjamin Franklin in London (2016) by George Goodwin:

“…For the rest of (Franklin’s) Scottish month he was in Edinburgh, where he arrived “Through Storms and Floods” and “lodged miserably at an Inn” for the first night. But relief was at hand, because the deist David Hume played the Good Samaritan (sic). Hume was a great friend of both (William) Strahan and (John) Pringle and he and Franklin had got to know each other during Hume’s thirty-month stay in London between 1767 and 1769. He now had an elegant house in the New Town and invited Franklin to live there for the rest of his time in the city, where he entertained him “with the greatest Kindness and Hospitality”…As (Franklin) wrote to William, he once more met the cream of the Scottish Enlightenment, men such as William Robertson, Principal of Edinburgh University and pre-eminent historian, together with his colleague the distinguished philosopher Adam Ferguson. Franklin wrote a sad note to Sir Alexander Dick after his return to London, regretting, ” ‘Tis an uncomfortable Thing, the Parting with Friends one hardly expects ever again to see”. Probably the more so because his trip to Scotland had been a great success, shown by the light-hearted, almost puckish letter he received from David Hume afterwards…”

“shock, adopted from the French word choquer”*

Will Slocombe, writing on the website of the Chicago School of Media Theory:

*”…Perhaps the most loaded definition of shock for the purposes of a study of media, is a medical one which presents shock as “a sudden debilitating effect produced by over-stimulation of nerves.” This definition is underscored by a later one that describes shock as “a momentary stimulation of a nerve. Also a stimulation of nerves with resulting contraction of muscles and feeling of concussion.; spec. = electric shock.” When in a condition of shock, the body is literally over-stimulated, is taking in too much information.

In his analysis of both Baudelaire and the cinema, Walter Benjamin employs this final definition of shock as over-stimulation within the context of psychoanalysis. In his essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin quotes Freud as writing “‘for a living organism, protection against stimuli is an almost more important function than the reception of stimuli'”. According to Freud, the human “‘protective shield,'” which has its own energy, guards the nervous system against “‘the excessive energies of the outside world'”. For Benjamin reading Freud, “the threat of these energies is one of shocks” and “the more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely they are to have a traumatic effect”. Freud through Benjamin is contending that the external world is constantly threatening to over-stimulate us and that, instead of requiring more means of accessing the world, the body needs protectors, shields, to help block it out. The principle shield is consciousness, which protects the subconscious from suffering the after-effects of shock. Much of this language recalls Marshall McLuhan’s definition of media as “extensions of man”. Here the extension, consciousness, is most decidedly a shield, and not a spear.

In his reading of Baudelaire, Benjamin employs shock both in the context of the creative process and in the context of the modern city. According to Benjamin, Baudelaire “speaks of a duel” between consciousness and the shocks of the external world. Consciousness is behaving here as a kind of combative and active shield, constantly parrying the shocking blows from the environment. Crucially, Benjamin contends that for Baudelaire, “this duel is the creative process itself,” and thus he “placed the shock experience at the very center of his artistic work”. The highly sensitized artist is constantly being shocked, over-stimulated, by the world around him and must enlist his consciousness to aid him in the battle. Benjamin introduces “Le Soleil” by arguing that Baudelaire “has pictured himself engaged in a fantastic combat” in a poem “that shows the poet at work”. The poem itself reads, in part, “When the cruel sun’s redoubled beams/ Are lashing city and field, roofs and grain,/I go alone, to practice my curious fencing/In every corner smelling out the dodges of rhyme”. There is a violence, a conflict, in the poem which recalls the first OED definition of shock, that of a military confrontation. More specifically, though, the artist’s consciousness is behaving as a combative shielding medium to protect his subconscious from the shock of the outside world.

For Benjamin, part of this external shock is inherent to the crowded modern city. He directs our attention towards the “the close connection in Baudelaire between the figure of shock and contact with the metropolitan masses”. Because the city, with its “traffic signals” and “technology” provides so much external stimulation, so much opportunity for shock, its population has collectively trained its consciousness to always be alert, to always be parrying those shocks. Put differently, the inhabitants of the modern city constantly have their mediating shields raised, to the shocking environment that surrounds them. Thus, Benjamin explains, “Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man ‘a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness'”. Here we get the explicit use of electricity as a conduit for shock. But, more broadly, we get the sense that crowds acclimated to the over-stimulation of the modern city, with its multiplicity of potentially shocking elements, are nothing less than fast-moving packs of excited shielding mediation. They are a kinetic bundle, equipped with the shield of consciousness and ready to do battle with modernity…”

Charles Wheeler (1892-1974)

From the New York Times of Aug. 23, 1974:

“LONDON, Aug. 22 — Sir Charles Wheeler, the sculptor, died tonight at his home in Mayfield, Sussex. His age was 82.

Sir Charles, whose traditionalist works appeared on many major public memorials and buildings, was president of the Royal Academy for 10 years from 1956. He was the first sculptor to hold that office.

Perhaps his best known works in London are the Jellicoe Fountain (see image above) in Trafalgar Square and the sculptures on the Bank of England building and South Africa House.

His most controversial pieces were the two nude male figures symbolizing speed and power over the entrance of the *English Electric Company‘s headquarters here.

This work was unveiled in 1960. The stark realism of the figures was unacceptable to executives of the First National City Bank of New York, which took over the premises in 1971. The figures were removed and have not been seen in public since.

Although Sir Charles was mild‐mannered man and not given to the sharp pronunciamentos beloved of some presidents of the Royal Academy, he did let fly once at Picasso. “Eight hundred square feet of absurdity,” he said about the huge mural for the UNESCO building in Paris.

Sir Charles studied art in Wolverhampton, in the English midlands, his birthplace, and in London. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1914 and became an Academician in 1940. He was knighted in 1958.

Sir Charles was a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission from 1946 to 1952. This is the organization that decides, among other things, whether a work of art is too rare to be sold for shipment overseas. He was also a trustee of the Tate Gallery and president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. He was awarded the gold medal of the United States Academy of Design in 1963.

He published his autobiography, “High Relief,” in 1968.

He married Muriel, the daughter of A. A. Bourne. They had a son and a daughter.”

From the website of the Science Museum Group:

*”The English Electric Company was formed on 14th December 1918 and over the following year acquired Dick, Kerr & Company of Preston, Willans & Robinson of Rugby, the Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing Company of Bradford, and Coventry Ordnance Works. After the First World War the various German owned Siemens works were distributed to different UK companies and in November 1919 English Electric acquired the Siemens Brothers Dynamo Works at Stafford, which became the company headquarters in 1931…

1930 saw the closure of Preston West works and the transfer of traction electrical design and manufacture to the Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing works. The Westinghouse influence included top management changes with Sir H Mensforth becoming chairman and George Nelson managing director. Both had been with British Westinghouse at Trafford Park. The early 1930s saw a remarkable improvement in the company’s finances and domestic appliance manufacture was started at Bradford and Stafford. In 1936 they began production of diesel locomotives at Preston and were later involved in the production of the Deltic locomotive for British Rail, presaging the end of steam traction in the UK…

In 1942 English Electric acquired D. Napier & Son Ltd and Marconi in 1946. The company went on to extend their railway interests with the acquisition of the Vulcan Foundry and Robert Stephenson and Hawthorn Ltd in 1955. The company tried to take over The General Electric Company (GEC) in 1960 but failed…

In 1961 English Electric took over Dorman Diesels Ltd which in turn had acquired W. G. Bagnall Ltd. In 1966 English Electric Diesels merged with Ruston and Hornsby which already included Paxmans. This company eventually became GEC Diesels. Elliott Automation was acquired in 1967. The following year GEC took over English Electric, ending its independent existence.”

“… by a sleep to say we end/The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to…”*

*from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, Act III, Scene I.

From panoramaofthethames.com:

“Number 3, Cholmondeley Walk was once the home of Richard Hilditch (1804-1873), the distinguished artist, who exhibited many paintings of views of Richmond at the Royal Academy. Richard worked for the family silk business and also established himself as a noted landscape artist. From 1824 to 1844 he used 13 Ludgate Hill as his address and then from 1849 gave Cholmondeley Cottage.

From the website of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames:

“…William McMillan, CVO, RA. 1887-1977 lived at no.3 Cholmondeley Walk (see picture above) from 1948 to 1970. He was an eminent Scottish sculptor who during the 1920s helped to lead sculpture away from marble to other stone and different woods. He is best remembered for his statues of King George VI in Carlton Gardens, London, of Alcock and Brown at Heathrow Airport, and of Thomas Coram and Sir Walter Raleigh on the Victoria Embankment. The Times newspaper carried a long obituary of him on 28th September 1977…”

From the website of the The Scottish Military Research Group – Commemorations Project:

William McMillan was born at Aberdeen on 31 August 1887. He studied at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen and the Royal College of Art between 1908 and 1912 and at the Royal Academy Schools. He also studied in Florence. He served in the Great War and his experience of trench warfare at its worst marked him for life. As a sculptor, McMillan was distinguished by his wide range of subjects,…curiosity about materials and his marked decorative ability.

The last was amply illustrated in his two bronze groups of ‘Nereid and Triton with dolphins’ for the Earl Beatty Memorial Fountain, Trafalgar Square (1948), which was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and exhibited at Burlington House in 1940.

…His statue of ‘King George VI’ (1954) in his garter robes stands in Carlton Gardens, London. His diminutive ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’ (1959) originally stood on Raleigh Green in Whitehall, but has since been rusticated to Greenwich, where it stands in the grounds of the former Royal Naval College. Cast by Morris Singer, his impressive life-size figurative sculpture of ‘Viscount Trenchard’ (1961) stands on Victoria Embankment in London…

Other portrait statues included ‘Captain Thomas Coram’ (1963) of Foundling Hospital fame in Brunswick Square, London; ‘Sir John Alcock’ and ‘Sir Arthur Brown’ at Heathrow were sculpted in 1966…his remarkable lightning conductor on the roof of Kensington Town Hall takes the form of a golden figure standing on one foot and holding a star aloft (1960).

…McMillan found considerable relaxation in water colours and pastels and many of his sketches were exhibited at the R.A.. In association with his friends Vincent Harris and Sir Edward Maufe, much of his work was of an architectural nature and may be seen on public buildings throughout Britain.

…In retirement McMillan was elected an Honorary Life Member of the Chelsea Arts Club, where he lunched almost daily until his death. In his younger days, he played a prominent part in the organization of the Chelsea Arts Ball at the Royal Albert Hall. In 1966 McMillan gave up his Chelsea studio and retired from active exercise of his profession, but continued to paint for pleasure.

…A few days before his 90th birthday in 1977, McMillan travelled to his Chelsea bank from his home in Richmond in Surrey, was mugged and found in the street badly injured minus his wallet. He died shortly thereafter in hospital.”

(Emanuel) Vincent Harris (1876-1971)

Image: view of Rashtrapati Bhavan (“Presidential Palace”, formerly Viceroy’s House), New Delhi, architect Edwin Lutyens.

From Wikipedia:

Emanuel Vincent Harris OBE RA (26 June 1876 – 1 August 1971), often known as E. Vincent Harris, was an English architect who designed several important public buildings.

He was born in Devonport, Devon and educated at Kingsbridge Grammar School. He was articled to the Plymouth architect James Harvey in 1893; in 1897 he moved to London, where he assisted E. Keynes Purchase, Leonard Stokes and Sir William Emerson. From 1901 to 1907 he worked for the London County Council before setting up in private practice.

He was primarily a classicist; A. Stuart Gray wrote: “Some of his buildings suggest the influence of Sir Edwin Lutyens, but are bolder, balder, and less subtle or more frank depending on ones point of view.” His work was often criticised by modernist architects. In his acceptance speech when he was awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 1951 Harris is reported to have said: “Look, a lot of you here tonight don’t like what I do and I don’t like what a lot of you do …”.

He became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1942. He died in Bath in 1971 and is buried in the village of Chaffcombe, Somerset.

From scottisharchitects.org.uk:

“…In 1901 (or 1902 – sources vary) Harris joined the London County Council’s Architects’ Department, working under William Edward Riley on tramway generating stations, some of which he made notably architectural. He won the Royal Academy’s Gold Medal and travelling Scholarship in 1903, set up independent practice in the following year and began entering competitions, coming second in Torquay Town Hall, sixth for the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, fourth for Crofton Park Library and second again for Dartmouth Town Hall…

Harris joined the Art Workers Guild in 1935.

The commission for the unbuilt Board of Trade offices was re-awarded by an Office of Works selection committee in January 1934 and redesigned to accommodate the Air Ministry in 1936, construction beginning in 1939 and halted a second time by the outbreak of war. In general concept it still followed the 1913-15 scheme and remained stone-faced in deference to the Whitehall setting.

Harris was sixty-nine at the end of the Second World War but he continued in practice to complete the Bristol Council House and build the Whitehall offices, revised yet again in a still larger and much bolder form to meet Treasury requirements. New commissions continued to come in, notably Kensington Library built 1955-60 and still in his pre-war classical brick-and-stone idiom.

Harris was appointed OBE in 1950, an honour which bore scant relationship to the scale and quality of his best work. Somewhat controversially he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal in 1951: by that date the younger architects saw his work as outdated and the half-built Whitehall offices had clouded his reputation. He was aware of it and his terse acceptance acknowledged it: ‘Look, a lot of you people here tonight don’t like what I do and I don’t like a lot of what you do, but I am proud and honoured to receive the Royal Gold Medal’.

On his retirement from practice to Chard in Somerset, Harris gave his house at 10 Fitzroy Park, Highgate, to the Burgh of Camden. He had designed it himself with the assistance of Donald McMorran. Ethel Harris died in 1965. Harris himself died at Cranhill Nursing Home, Bath, on 1 August 1971, and was buried in the churchyard at Chaffcombe where a monument by Arthur Bailey marks his grave. As he had no children his estate was divided between the Royal Academy and Chard School in accordance with his will.

Harris designed only one work in Scotland, an addition to Tullich Lodge, Ballater. But his influence was marked in the works of John Watson II who was in his office 1927-33 and similarly continued to design in a classical idiom after the Second World War, while his brick and stone municipal architecture seems to have influenced the work of James Miller in the mid-1930s. Watson remembered the office regime as strict and austere but not unkind: no smoking, tea or coffee, not out of any meanness but a distaste for any form of untidiness or any hazard to drawings which might upset workflow. The practice was unusual in that it was almost wholly dependent on competition wins for large projects, although he did design a racquet court for Stephen Courtauld in 1924 and Atkinson’s Scent shop in Old Bond Street, London, in 1927.

Harris himself was small in stature and had absolutely no small talk. In Arthur Bailey’s words his practice: ‘required no social attributes or the patronage usually associated with architectural practices…he had no time for letters, meetings or officialdom…having won a competition, it was there to be built’. He designed everything that mattered himself, again in Bailey’s words: ‘The purely classical proportions were printed indelibly on his mind, and he would take a roll of detail paper, pin it to the top of his board and proceed to detail from cornice to skirting rolling the paper from his feet in the process.’

From the London Remembers website:

“A plaque, Rivington Street EC2, inscribed:

London Borough of Hackney

Electricity generating sub station.

Transformer station for tramway system. Designed in 1905 by Vincent Harris. Architect with London County Council. Built 1905 – 07.

(This building is extremely similar to one in Islington Upper Street, opposite Lloyds Bank.)”

“The Spirit of Electricity”

From Historic England entry:

The period after 1945 saw a shift from commemorative sculpture and architectural enrichment to the idea of public sculpture as a primarily aesthetic contribution to the public realm. Sculpture was commissioned for new housing, schools, universities and civic set pieces, with London and the counties of Hertfordshire and Leicestershire leading the way in public patronage. Thus public sculpture could be an emblem of civic renewal and social progress. By the late C20 however, patronage was more diverse and included corporate commissions and Arts Council-funded community art. The ideology of enhancing the public realm through art continued, but with divergent means and motivation.

Visual language ranged from the abstraction of Victor Pasmore and Phillip King to the figurative approach of Elisabeth Frink and Peter Laszlo Peri, via those such as Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth who bridged the abstract/representational divide. The post-war decades are characterised by the exploitation of new, often industrial, materials and techniques including new welding and casting techniques, plastics and concrete, while kinetic sculpture and ‘ready mades’ (using found objects) demonstrate an interest in composite forms.

Geoffrey Clarke (1924-2014) was commissioned in 1958 by Thorn Electrical Industries to create a sculpture for their new headquarters building on St Martin’s Lane, designed by Andrew Renton (1917-1982) of Basil Spence and Partners. It is unclear whether the clients or Clarke came up with the title, ‘The Spirit of Electricity’, although it is claimed that Clarke had formed the idea for the design from a study of old light bulb filaments at the Science Museum. The clients stipulated that the sculpture should have integral illumination. The design is similar to one submitted by Clarke for the 1959 competition for a sculpture for the front of the John Lewis store on Oxford Street, won by Barbara Hepworth. The sculpture was erected on the east (Upper St Martin’s Lane) elevation of the 16-storey Thorn House in the spring of 1961. The Architectural Review for September 1961 welcomed the sculpture as an example of business patrons providing London ‘with several worthwhile public examples of the sculpture of our own day, in which it has hitherto been very poor.’ Edwin Mullins, however, in his article ‘The Open Air Vision: A Survey of Sculpture in London Since 1945 (Apollo Vol. LXXVII, August 1962) criticised the position of the sculpture since ‘one can only see it properly from an oblique angle, where it is belittled by the building itself, and where its thinness makes it look like a piece of scaffolding’. In 1988-90 the architects Renton Howard Wood Levin renovated the renamed Orion House. The building was reclad, replacing the original Derbydene fossil limestone facing with white aluminium panels, and various alterations were made including the addition of a projecting services stack on the north (Lichfield Street) elevation. The sculpture was moved here from the east elevation after consultation with the Royal Fine Art Commission.”

“The wise man draws more advantage from his enemies than the fool from his friends.”*

*from Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac”.

From: Chapter Eleven (1766-1770) of Benjamin Franklin in London (2016) by George Goodwin:

(Lord) Hillsborough (holder of the newly created office of Secretary of State for the Colonies) was showing himself to be no friend of America…For the elder Franklin…the opportunity for thoughtful and private discussions over dinner had been replaced by something else entirely.

With that in mind, Franklin and his fellow shareholders in the Ohio scheme should have treated a surprisingly generous action of Hillsborough’s with the greatest suspicion…

…The Grand Ohio Company was created and it applied for a grant for 2,400,000 acres. It was when the petition, signed by (Thomas) Walpole, (Samuel) Wharton, Benjamin Franklin and Richard Jackson, was at length heard by the Board of Trade that Hillsborough made his helpful suggestion that the application be increased to 20 million acres with the words, “ask for enough to make a Province”. It was taken up. They played straight into Hillsborough’s hands. Such a large acreage would necessitate the formal establishment of a new colony, with its attendant institutions. The Privy Council would need to refer back to the Board of Trade. The company soon realised their mistake and it was one they had time to ponder at length, as Hillsborough personally delayed matters over the next three years. As with Thomas Penn and the “Heads of Complaint”, Franklin had been treated as a fool. That was not something he was willing to forget.”

Los borrachos

Image: The Triumph of Bacchus (Greek title is Ο Θρίαμβος του Βάκχου) is a painting by Diego Velázquez, now in the Museo del Prado, in Madrid. It is popularly known as Los borrachos or The Drinkers (politely, also The Drunks). It has been described as the masterpiece of Velázquez’s 1620s paintings.

From: Chapter Eleven (1766-1770) of Benjamin Franklin in London (2016) by George Goodwin:

…In June (1768) Hillsborough completed his takeover of American affairs when the Board of Trade was added to his remit. Franklin wrote that he had dined with the displaced Lord Clare just two days before the latter’s dismissal, that they had had “a good deal of conversation on our affairsand that Clare “seemed to interest himself with all the attention that could be supposed in a minister who expected to continue in the management of them”. However, Clare may have had some *inkling because, Ben told William, “at parting, after we had drank a bottle and a half of claret each” Clare had hugged and kissed him, “protesting he never in his life met with a man he was so much in love with”. For those who can imagine the scene, Bens following sentence of “This I write for your amusementwould seem somewhat unnecessary.”

*From merriam-webster.com:

Originating in English in the early 16th century, inkling derives from Middle English yngkiling, meaning “whisper or mention,” and perhaps further from the verb inclen, meaning “to hint at.” It also shares a distant relationship with the Old English noun inca, meaning “suspicion.” An early sense of the word meant “a faint perceptible sound or undertone” or “rumor,” but now people usually use the word to refer to a tiny bit of knowledge or information that a person receives about something. One related word you might not have heard of is the verb inkle, a back-formation of inkling that occurs in some British English dialects and means “to have an idea or notion of.”

Symphony No. 9 (Dvořák)

Pictured: Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset.

From Wikipedia:

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”.

“Goin’ Home”

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.”