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Antonin Dvorak

1941 - 1904

Antonin Dvorak was a brilliant composer born on September 8, 1841, in the Bohemian town of Nelahozeves. He was exposed to music at a young age at his father's inn, where local folk music was a part of every day life. Before the age of twelve, Dvorak was a proven musician. He was able to accompany local musicians on his violin in various Bohemian dances and folk songs. At the age of sixteen, his music teacher and parents, even with serious financial hardships, sent him to an organ school in Prague.

After graduating from the school in 1859, Dvorak continued to live in Prague without financial assistance from his father. By this time, he was a virtuoso violist and played in inns and theatre orchestras to make a living. He also taught to supplement his income. By the 1860's, Dvorak had begun to compose. He was living very meagerly at the time, and was barely able to afford paper to write on and a piano to play. By 1864, various works, including Symphonies 1 and 2, and the opera King and Collier were lying unheard upon his desk. The styles expressed in his earlier music were similar to that of Wagner and Liszt, influences he would abandon in years to come.

By the year 1875, Dvorak had become successful. He had been awarded a bursary from the Austrian government and was able to compose full time without having to worry about money. He had married Anna Cermakova in 1873 and had settled into a very happy family life, unusual for a Romantic composer. He was an active Christian, devoting some of his choral music, such as Stabat Mater, to the church. Dvorak also had many hobbies outside of music. He was often seen at railway yards loco-watching" or at his summer house in Prague bird-watching.

By the year 1893, Dvorak had composed eight of his nine symphonies, six operas, a small portion of his chamber music, three concertos, two overtures, most of his choral music, and his Slavonic dances and rhapsodies, the dances being in response to Brahms' Hungarian dances. In 1892, the composer was asked to be director of the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He was paid fifteen thousand dollars a year, a huge sum in those days, but he missed his native Bohemia and moved back three years later. However, it was during his brief stay in the United States that he wrote his best known work. This piece, said to be reminiscent of several folk songs of the black population in the southern United States, was peppered with images and colours of Dvorak's stay in America, the New World.

II. The Symphony

Symphony Number Nine in E minor, "From the New World", was written in two places: New York City and Spillville, Iowa, a Bohemian settlement where Dvorak would spend his summers with his kinsmen. The music, as most of Dvorak's is, is delightfully simple and beautiful. Extensively explored in this symphony, Dvorak's style of simple folk melodies blending together is brought out wonderfully. This was his last symphonic composition, of which there were nine of them to follow in Beethoven's footsteps. This one was originally labeled Number Five because of the order in which his publisher published them.

"From the New World" is very characteristic of the Romantic era. Built on the traditional style of four movements, the first movement being the fastest, the second the slowest, and the remaining two being consecutively faster, it is very uncharacteristic in content. They symphony is about forty minutes long, also very characteristic of the Romantic era. The simple yet elegant melodies are in stark contrast to many of his contemporaries' music. He is the only major composer to use melodies of the black population of America in his works. The folk songs of this people had such a strong effect on him that he mentioned that his stay in the United States was "a legacy which makes free use of the Negro's musical language." Despite the minor key in which the symphony is cast, the overall tone and feeling of the music is one of happiness, gaiety, and animation. A detailed analytical discussion follows on each individual movement in the symphony.

A. The First Movement

The first movement in the new world is entitled Adagio: Allegro molto. The first bars, the introduction, are set in an adagio rhythm with a time signature of 4/8. The introduction is rather long, however, when it ends, the main theme of the movement is given by the french horns. The rest of the movement, still in the key of E minor, has a 2/4 time signature, and is the allegro molto section. The phrase given by the horns is arpeggio-like and is very light cheerful. It is repeated other times by the oboe and later the horns are joined by the trombones, creating a very bold and brassy effect.

In between the two major themes in the first movement, is an area sharply accented, very bold, and syncopated region. This area, while having their origins in the music of America's south, is very typical of Slavonic music with which Dvorak was well acquainted.

The second theme in the first movement from "From the New World" has excited audience members for years. Introduced by the flute and echoed by french horn and trumpet, this theme is thought to be based upon a song that is well known today: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The first illumination of the theme by the flutes and oboes is accompanied by a drone pianomissimo D concert note by the french horns and violins.

Finishing off the movement is a small coda, or codetta, after a repeat of the first theme. The coda is a little more flamboyant than the previous themes, and the heavy use of the brass section may be reminiscent of Wagner's works upon Dvorak's musical styles. The total movement is about nine minutes in length.

B. Second Movement

The second movement of Symphony No. 9 in E minor is the most popular section of the work by far. Originally entitled Adagio, Dvorak changed the title after he heard the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Anton Seidil in a rehearsal for the symphony's first performance. The orchestra played the movement much slower than an adagio tempo, and Dvorak liked this expression much more than his original intentions. The new name for this movement was Largo.

The movement is set in 4/4 time, but this time starts in the key of D flat major. This is the longest movement in the symphony, being about eleven minutes in length. The tender melody is introduced by the english horn and follows a sombre chordal passage brought out by the horns, trumpet, and trombone. Many critics have called it "the most beautiful use of the english horn found in all orchestral literature." It has been compared to "a homesick immigrant, who has come to the New World in search of fortune." The theme is accompanied by strings first, later the oboes and flutes are added. It is later repeated with clarinets and still later with the horns.

The second theme of the second movement in "From the New World" is played by flute and oboe. This time, the key has modulated to E major. Like the first theme, it is very simple and elegant. The movement continues, and the first theme is repeated. This puts the entire movement in an A-B-A format, with the "B" section being slightly faster than the "A."

The melodies in this particular movement pose a particular problem for musical historians. No one is really sure as to what source Dvorak used for inspiration for the tunes. Miss Alice Fletcher, a prominent collector of native tribal music, said that the composer told her that the basis for the melody came from an Osage Indian song he heard in Iowa. However, William Armes Fisher, a fellow teacher at the Conservatory, said that Dvorak told him that all the music in the symphony was entirely original. Another person claimed that the music was original, but Dvorak had been reading Longfellow's Hiawatha just he composed the second movement. All possibilities are open for debate, for it is feasible that Dvorak told one thing in one nation and another to other nations in order to get people to praise his work.

C. Third Movement

For his last symphony, Dvorak stayed within the confines of Romantic symphony form. This is very true for the third movement as well. This scherzo is in the orthodox style. Again in the A-B-A format, this section is still set in E minor, however, the time signature changes to 3/4. The tempo markings for this is allegro vivace, a lively pace.

The "A" section of this movement is quite lively. It opens with interesting arpeggio-like passages played by the French horns. The primary theme changes hands many times, going from the flutes and oboes, to the first violins, to the cellos, to the double bass, and finally to the horns. The other instruments keep together the unique rhythms of this section. The theme is presented in two bar sections. Throughout all this, the arpeggio passage heard in the introduction recurs often, but with different instruments playing it. The second theme of the primary section is very simplistic, reminding the listener of the Largo movement's opening. Like the second movement, it is illustrated by flutes and oboes with string accompaniment. The key has modulated to E major by this time.

The "B" portion of the Scherzo is a Trio, a slightly faster section. The movement modulates back to E minor to start this section off. The primary theme is a light, jolly dance. The second theme is reminds us that Dvorak is Bohemian in origin. Its melody is an old world waltz. To finish the movement off, the "A" section is repeated again, after which there is a small coda. The coda may also be based upon "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." A different connecting arpeggio passage, shown below, is present within the coda and literally bursts into the concert hall with the help of the lower brass. This is the shortest movement in Dvorak's Symphony No. Nine in E minor, being about eight minutes in length.

D. Fourth Movement

The fourth movement has a tempo marking of allegro con fuoco. Like the second movement, it is set with a 4/4 time signature, but the key is in E minor. "This finale is regarded a remarkable illustration of Dvorak's symphonic technique." Apart from the use of melodies previously heard in the symphony, the composer comes up with some enticing new ones as well.

The first theme of the movement is an explosion of sound and tone colours after the introduction. Shouted by the French horns and trumpets, this theme is also very characteristic of Dvorak, and it clearly shows his nationalistic preferences. A second, less important theme is later introduced by a clarinet accompanied by a string tremolo. It is after this that themes from the previous three movements come into play. Included in the collection are the first themes from all three previous movements. The symphony comes to a close after a brilliant, enormous ending.

During the fourth movement, there is a single, solitary cymbal use, a feature which is absolutely critical to some people and useless and trivial to some others. At one performance of this piece, the cymbalist missed his cue. When the conductor, Hans Richter, returned many years later to conduct "From the New World" again, he had still not forgiven the percussionist. He even asked the concert master, "Dat Becken man, is he dead?" This use of an instrument in a single place in the score is also very characteristic of Dvorak, and is repeated in the second movement with a piccolo and in several other symphonies.

III. Conclusion

To end off the discussion on Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor correctly, one must listen to the work. For one hundred years, people have been doing just that. They have listened to the composer's expressions, thoughts, impressions, and his view of America. They have listened to influences as diverse as the black population of the southern United States, the natives in the American midwest, and his own influences in Bohemia: the country folk and their music, with whom Dvorak was in his glory.

The large majority of people who hear "From the New World" are struck by its simplicity and elegance. They fall in love with the symphony very easily. However, professional music critics have often thought of it as a bunch of folk tunes loosely strung together, sort of a patchwork quilt. Nevertheless, this work has remained the composer's most popular for over one hundred years. It probably will remain with us for many more. As Dvorak said the night Symphony No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World," was first performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Anton Seidil on December 15, 1893,:

 

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