Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 in E-minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”

by Max Derrickson

Antonin Dvořák   (b Nelahozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), September 8, 1841; Prague, May 1, 1904)

Symphony No. 9 in E-minor, Op. 95  “From the New World”

  1. Adagio – Allegro molto
  2. Largo
  3. Scherzo – Molto vivace
  4. Allegro con fuoco

A search for the identity of American music happened long before George Gershwin came onto the scene.  In 1892, wealthy socialite Jeanette Thurber coaxed Bohemia’s greatest musical treasure, composer Antonin Dvořák, to become the Director of her newly formed National Conservatory of Music inNew York.  Because of Dvořák’s commitment to musical nationalism, Thurber hoped he would helpAmericafind its own national style.  Whereas his years in America, 1892-95, proved prodigious in masterpieces for Dvořák (“New World” Symphony, String Quintet in Eb, Quartet in F, and the quintessential Cello Concerto), he did not help create an American national style of music, despite endless confusion and arguments to the contrary regarding his New World Symphony.  Intrigued as he was with “Negro and Native Indian” music, Dvořák did, however, leave the American musical scene with a lasting influence: his Directorship was based on the condition that African and Native Americans be allowed into the Conservatory regardless of their ability to afford it, a condition that was kindly obliged.


The Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” was completed in May of 1893, and Dvořák was armed with some inspirations.  One was Longfellow’s epic poem Hiawatha about the noble native Indian, and another was the superb Negro spirituals which he gleaned from students at the Conservatory.  Perhaps its greatest inspiration, however, was the invigorating spirit in which Dvořák found himself immersed.  Though he suggested that the middle movements of the Symphony were inspired by scenes from Hiawatha, any direct quotes of American music cannot be found.  The famous “Goin’ Home” tune [. . .]


The first movement begins with a slow and raconteuresque introduction, memorable at once, which opens the Symphony’s door to a vast and magnificent landscape.  When the first theme is then fully introduced with an unforgettably bracing horn call, the effect is utterly sweeping and dramatic, and wonderfully in motion.  It’s no wonder that deep associations with theNew World’s natural grandeur are made with Dvořák’s amazing tone painting.  When the second theme is introduced on the clarinet, the music gains momentum creating a more intense, yet quieter, dramatic effect.  The dramaticism, however, is vital and exciting – an exalted wonder of discovery.  The rest of the movement displays Dvořák’s mastery of melodic development at its best.  Parts of the two main themes are used in extraordinary ways and can be heard in virtually every measure as the movement races toward its exultant conclusion.


It’s worth mentioning that each movement in this Symphony bears an introduction, which is both novel and extremely clever, as motives from them are used in all the movements.  That said the solemn, infinitely affecting introduction to the Largo is one of the most singularly breathtaking moments in music.  [. . .]

The Finale brings back the dramatic energy of the first movement but with a bristling sense of urgency.  From this proceeds a kind of rhapsody on multiple themes, using new ones from the Finale and from the other movements, woven together with amazing facility.  One of the most exciting moments of this theme-rhapsodizing happens near the end when the brass play the once solemn introduction from the Largo, [. . .]