Even in a cultural era ripe with nationalism, Antonín Dvořák was one of the most nationalistic. Slavic folk music, especially from his native Bohemia, permeates his entire oeuvre. He develops these simplistic folk elements into sophisticated symphonies, operas and concertos through Romantic compositional techniques, while retaining a certain innocence that makes his music approachable and beloved by musicians and audiences alike.
For Dvořák incorporating Slavic folk elements into his music wasn’t so much a political gesture as it was a matter of musical philosophy. Having grown up in the Bohemian countryside playing folk tunes in his father’s tavern, he intuited an intimate relationship between music and the place it came from, and he believed that all peoples of the world should develop their own music stemming from their homegrown culture.
Driven perhaps by this core belief, Dvořák became fascinated by Native-American music and African-American spirituals during his time as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America from 1892 to 1895. An African-American student at the Conservatory and later a composer himself, Harry T. Burleigh, sang spirituals to Dvořák to help acquaint him with the genre. Seeing parallels between these songs and the folk music of his homeland — in the connection to the countryside, to the joys and sorrows that come with close dependence on nature, and to the struggles of an oppressed people — and perhaps also delighting in the warm familiar tonality of the pentatonic scale, on which both genres are based, Dvořák asserted:
“I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”
In constructing a piece for the New World, then, Dvořák’s philosophy naturally led him to these melodies.
Composed in 1893 on a commission from the New York Philharmonic, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” takes inspiration from the “wide open spaces” of America’s physical landscape and the music unique to its people: Native-American music and African-American spirituals, the “spirit” of which Burleigh had credited Dvořák with absorbing before writing his own melodies. In much the same way as he does with Slavic folk music, Dvořák translates this New World folk music into a more general language in this Symphony, which lets him introduce these sounds to the rest of the world.
In many ways this “New World” Symphony, which also contains folk elements that seem to recall Dvořák’s homeland and Romantic symphonic impulses alike, is distinctly emblematic of the cultural melting pot of America, and perhaps that is its power. Starting from its premiere under the baton of Anton Seidl, where it received tumultuous applause, it has been a crowd favorite, and today it remains one of the most recognizable symphonic works in history. Neil Armstrong even took a recording of it to the moon in 1969.
Bärenreiter has recently released a new Urtext edition of the piece edited by Jonathan Del Mar, following on Del Mar’s recent work on Dvořák’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. The new edition clarifies many uncertainties, as Del Mar himself explains:
If Dvořák’s Eighth has always been the most error-ridden symphony in the standard repertoire, the New World has been the one with the most problems. Even a couple of Urtext Editions, one Czech from half a century ago, the other more recent, have caused more difﬁculties than they solved.
The dilemma, as so often, is the many discrepancies between autograph and ﬁrst edition; which do we trust? Until now the answers have been more or less guesswork, editors tending (reasonably enough, perhaps) to be beguiled by the hallowed evidence of the composer’s own handwriting, especially tempting due to the fact that publication was not supervised by Dvořák, who was stuck on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean, but was left in the good hands of Brahms. But of course the autograph is not always the last word. And now at last we have a new source which can help us to sort the sheep from the goats. This was discovered about 30 years ago, and is — amazingly — almost the complete set of parts used for the ﬁrst performance in New York, which still survives in the archive of the New York Philharmonic. These were copied directly from the lost Stichvorlage copyist’s manuscript, and therefore give us much crucial information as to which readings that manuscript score, which included Dvořák’s ﬁnal revisions, is likely to have had. From the huge number of places where these parts agree with Dvořák’s autograph, we can also see exactly which readings in the ﬁrst edition score emanate from Brahms.
But even the ﬁrst performance parts do not provide the conclusive answer to the most important question of all: the placing of the peremptory horn call in the fourth bar. For that, we can now summon a much more recent discovery, one of just a few months ago: a sheet of manuscript paper on which Dvořák jotted down the main themes of the work for a lecture recital he gave shortly after the ﬁrst performance. This at last shows unambiguously his ﬁnal version of this controversial bar, which has not been heard correctly for over a hundred years.
Jonathan Del Mar