Antonin Dvorak - 1841—1904
( Originally Published 1935 )
Symphony No. 5, in E minor ("From the New World"), Opus 95
I. Adagio; Allegro molto
III. Scherzo: Molto vivace
IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco
The famous "New World" symphony was one of the creative results of Dvorak's visit to America, where he taught composition at the National Conservatory of Music, 1892 to 1895. As a peasant with little education but extraordinary musical impressionability and creative power, and one profoundly attached to his own soil, Dvorak's utilized Czech melodies in his scores, and his own melodic ideas were in the vein of Czech folk-music. Thus he became the principal exponent of the Czech national school of composition, just as Greg in Norway headed a national school, and as a whole group of brilliant Russians, from Glint to Rimsky-KorsakoIf and Mussorgsky, founded their native school, which derived its inspiration largely from Russian folk-melody. Much might be said here about the folk-element in art music. Many believe that unless the roots of a composer's art are deep in the soil of his folk-melody, he cannot be significantly creative.
But we are now discussing Dvorak. Dvorak's instinct as a composer caused him to examine American folksongs, especially those of the negroes and Indians, with a view to incorporating their melodic essence, or spirit, in an American symphony. The appearance of the "New World" symphony, which is a charming and highly original score, precipitated long and academic discussion. The discussion is principally a thing of the past. The symphony remains. Whether it de-serves the title of "New World" symphony, whether Dvorak did or did not use melodic ideas peculiar to America (though not folk-music of the present white Americans) , is no longer of first importance. Dvorak himself denied that he had used Negro or American folk-tunes in his score, but there is one theme which is unmistakably derived from the Negro spiritual "Swing low, sweet chariot." It is given to a solo flute, against a background of strings, in the first movement. While the quotation is not precise, some notes of the original phrase being omitted, the source and the close resemblance are unquestionable. Harry T. Burleigh, the Negro choir singer of St. George's Church in New York, was a student at the National Conservatory of Music when Dvorak was teaching there, and he sang for the composer many Negro spirituals. "Swing low" was one of Dvorak's favorites. Most of the melodies in the symphony appear to be Dvofak's, though the song of the English horn in the , slow movement can well have originated in a Negro spiritual. It is in that vein, and it has a typical melancholy and pathos. As for the general character of the music, its pervading sentiment, or, as it might be put, temperament, it is after all that of a simple Czech, homesick for his native land. Yet the symphony comes fairly by the title "New World," not merely because of Dvorak's purpose in writing it, and the influence of music he found here, but because of the precipitating effect that the New World had upon his creative nature. "A greeting to the New 'World" might better have been a more precise indication of the nature of the composition. Certain it is that the feelings which stirred Dvorak's heart when he was here, and the effect of the new environment, inspired what is by far his greatest work in the symphonic form.
The symphony is in four movements, each with a few introductory measures. Themes are carried over, .and thus accumulate, as the composer progresses. In the broad introduction the French horns anticipate a motive to be heard later. This motive, which appears in its complete form when the pace has quickened, is a basic element of the whole symphony. Another motive, which spans the space between this first theme and that of "Swing low, sweet chariot," is played first, by flutes and oboes, and was believed by Mr. Burleigh to be derived from slave songs.' Following this the solo flute is heard with the fragment of "Swing low, sweet chariot," which is then taken up by the strings. Thereafter all the material is developed according to symphonic usage. The noble harmonies of wood and brass which open the second movement prelude the song of the English horn already referred to. It is said that in this movement Dvorak had thought of certain parts of Longfellow's poem "Hiawatha," a subject which he considered making into an opera. The middle part of the movement is more animated, and it is not hard to think of a summer night on the prairie. Dvorak's scherzo, very piquant and brilliant, with a delightful melody in the manner of a peasant dance for its middle section, is decidedly Slavic. The opening theme of the last movement, crashed out by trumpets, with chords of the full orchestra, has a finely stark and barbaric outline. Is this an Indian influence? History does not tell us. This finale has a broad sweep and splendor, a fine glow of romantic feeling—a salutation to the New World.
Whether Americans could ever follow successfully in Dvorak's footsteps and create an important art from the folk-music of other peoples than themselves is a question still to be answered in the affirmative.
Of December 20 and 21, 1930, and other program books of that organization, said that "There is a subsidiary theme in G minor in the first movement with a flatted seventh, and I feel sure the Doctor [Dvoiak] caught this peculiarity of most of the slave songs from some that I sang to him; for he used to stop me and ask me if that was the way the slaves sang."
When Dvorak composed the "New World" symphony the American Edward MacDowell was already at work upon his "Indian Suite." Years after Dvorak and MacDowell too had disappeared, MacDowell's most gifted American pupil, Henry F. Gilbert, produced certain scores which were pronounced by Philip Hale, H. T. Parker and others to have authentic and distinctive American flavor. These scores utilzed Negro spirituals and other folk-music. And now, after a Gilbert did the spade-work and died., it is positively fashionable to write in jazz style. But the course that American music will take in the future is not easily predictable.
Dvorak, the starving son of a village butcher, had taken his viola under his arm, played at fairs, country weddings, and the like, wandered the highways and byways of Bohemia, harkened to the music of the gypsies and poured the accumulation, plus his own immense melodic fertility, into his scores. Why, he asked, could not Americans do the same? For many reasons. We have not developed a deep consciousness of our soil. Our transplantation here is recent. We cannot tell Europeans, as Will Rogers did, that while his people did not come over on the Mayflower, they met the boat! We have not, unfortunately, Dvorak's feeling for nature. The machine age has come upon us. Oscar Thompson, when he was music reviewer for the New York "Evening Post," asked in the course of a certain article what had become of the great American music we all expected to hear—music which should proclaim the beauty and romance of the new vast land, the sweep of mountain and prairie, the mystery of virgin forests, the glory of the stars. He answered himself. He said that the stars twinkled from electric fixtures in the roofs of road-houses and cabarets, and not from the night skies that overhang mountain and prairie. For we have gone urban and not rural in our development, and away from Dvorak's vision, not toward it. We have run to factories and hotels. Our most indigenous music is jazz, a town product. Even the simple lays of Negro minstrelsy are things of the past.