Antonín Dvorák

Biography

Born: 1841   Died: 1904   Country: Czechoslovakia   Period: Romantic
Widely regarded as the most distinguished of Czech composers, Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904) produced attractive and vigorous music possessed of clear formal outlines, melodies that are both memorable and spontaneous-sounding, and a colorful, effective instrumental sense. Dvorák is considered one of the major figures of nationalism, both proselytizing for and making actual use of folk influences, which he expertly combined with Classical forms in Read more works of all genres. His symphonies are among his most widely appreciated works; the Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World," 1893) takes a place among the finest and most popular examples of the symphonic literature. Similarly, his Cello Concerto (1894-1895) is one of the cornerstones of the repertory, providing the soloist an opportunity for virtuosic flair and soaring expressivity. Dvorák displayed special skill in writing for chamber ensembles, producing dozens of such works; among these, his 14 string quartets (1862-1895), the "American" Quintet (1893) and the "Dumky" Trio (1890-1891) are outstanding examples of their respective genres, overflowing with attractive folklike melodies set like jewels into the solid fixtures of Brahmsian absolute forms.
Dvorák's "American" and "New World" works arose during the composer's sojourn in the United States in the early 1890s; he was uneasy with American high society and retreated to a small, predominantly Czech town in Iowa for summer vacations during his stay. However, he did make the acquaintance of the pioneering African-American baritone H.T. Burleigh, who may have influenced the seemingly spiritual-like melodies in the "New World" symphony and other works; some claim that the similarity resulted instead from a natural affinity between African-American and Eastern European melodic structures.
By that time, Dvorák was among the most celebrated of European composers, seen by many as the heir to Brahms, who had championed Dvorák during the younger composer's long climb to the top. The son of a butcher and occasional zither player, Dvorák studied the organ in Prague as a young man and worked variously as a café violist and church organist during the 1860s and 1870s while creating a growing body of symphonies, chamber music, and Czech-language opera. For three years in the 1870s he won a government grant (the Viennese critic Hanslick was among the judges) designed to help the careers of struggling young creative artists. Brahms gained for Dvorák a contract with his own publisher, Simrock, in 1877; the association proved a profitable one despite an initial controversy that flared when Dvorák insisted on including Czech-language work titles on the printed covers, a novelty in those musically German-dominated times. In the 1880s and 1890s Dvorák's reputation became international in scope thanks to a series of major masterpieces that included the Seventh, Eighth, and "New World" symphonies. At the end of his life he turned to opera once again; Rusalka, from 1901, incorporates Wagnerian influences into the musical telling of its legend-based story, and remains the most frequently performed of the composer's vocal works. Dvorák, a professor at Prague University from 1891 on, exerted a deep influence on Czech music of the twentieth century; among his students was Josef Suk, who also became his son-in-law. Read less

Work: New World Symphony

 

About This Work
Dvorák composed this work in 1893; Anton Seidl conducted the premiere with the New York Philharmonic Society on December 16, 1893.

His most popular work from his time spent in America was the swan-song symphony he subtitled From
Read more the New World. Chauvinists among us still claim that its themes are either Amerindian or African-American, which Dvorák refuted in 1900: "Omit the nonsense about my having made use of 'American' motifs....I tried only to write in the spirit of those national melodies." This dust-up managed to ignore influences both stronger and more subtle. Dvorák already knew Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, completed in 1888, and he likewise used a motto-theme to link the four movements in his symphony in E minor. The introduction can be made to sound a lot more Tchaikovskian, indeed, than a subsequent theme can be made to sound like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," as alleged. Beyond the Slavic gravitas of both symphonies, however, Dvorák's musical signature was intrinsically Czech, even in the Largo movement that represented, he once said, Hiawatha at the grave site of Minnehaha (a quasi-Spiritual, "Goin' Home" text was created post facto by a white American pupil). By the time he heard any Amerind music, during the summer of 1893 near a Czech settlement at Spillville, Iowa, Dvorák had finished the Ninth Symphony. From the structural standpoint, two sonata-form movements (with an exposition repeat in the first) bracket two movements in song form (ABA), all of them with brief introductions and codas.

The 2/4 Allegro molto has an Adagio preface in 4/8 time. Horns introduce the motto theme, answered by clarinets and bassoons, then strings. Flutes and oboes play a melody in G minor before the "Swing Low" closing subject shifts from minor to G major. Sectional development omits the G minor tune; reprise and coda are distillations.

The Largo begins in D flat major, far from single sharped E minor. A plaintive English horn melody dominates both here and later on. In between a C sharp minor section marked Un poco più mosso, winds introduce two themes, more palpitant than the D flat section's big tune, before the motto makes a sinister appearance.

Song sections marked Scherzo: Molto vivace, in E minor, pay homage less to Indian pow-wows than to the scherzo movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A briefer subject in E major recalls the G major closing theme of the first movement, followed by the motto. The Poco sostenuto Trio is pure Czech, beginning in C major, with a G major second theme related to the Beethoven rhythm in sections A and A.

Allegro con fuoco is the marking of the final movement with a martial main theme in E minor for horns and trumpets. The clarinet counters with a nostalgic sub-theme, after which flutes and fiddles play a closing subject in G major. The development combines music from previous movements with the main theme of movement 4. Following the recap, a Grand Coda ends with a fortissimo restatement of the motto, then a diminuendo to pianissimo on the final chord.

-- Roger Dettmer, All Music Guide Read less

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