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Timeline: The New World Symphony

U.S. Public Domain
The title page of the autograph score of Dvorak's 9th symphony, "From the New World"

When Dvorak arrived in New York City in 1892, he wasn’t just listening to the music made in the conservatory halls. He turned his attention to the tapestry of sound and expression from ethnic groups all across America. These influences came together in his 9th Symphony which he named The New World.

Dvorak’s New World Symphony has become a favorite across the globe. Neil Armstrong even brought a recording to the moon on Apollo 11. This universal (even extraterrestrial) appeal is due to the familiarity of the form and the freshness of the melodic and rhythmic material. Not only can you hear hints of Beethoven’s 9th symphony but, as Dvorak stated, “anyone with a nose” can hear the influence of America in this music.

Though Dvorak does not directly quote either spirituals or Native American song, it’s undeniable that he was seeking to evoke their character in this work. He was introduced to African American music by his assistant Harry Burleigh, a baritone soloist and interpreter of these songs of the south. Dvorak believed that in these melodies there was everything needed to form a new musical style. He said, “America can have a great and noble music of her own, growing out of the very soil and partaking of its nature – the natural voice of a free and vigorous race.”

The New World Symphony also owes a debt to the poems of Longfellow. Dvorak had long desired to create a cantata or even an opera based on Hiawatha. It’s highly possible that his 9th Symphony is a working out of material for the never composed Song of Hiawatha.

To call The New World Symphony a triumph is an understatement. At the premiere in Carnegie Hall in 1893 each movement was met with thunderous applause. So much so that Dvorak felt compelled to stand and bow between each one. But not everyone was impressed. The Boston music critic, William Apthorp famously called the melodies and influences of The New World Symphony “barbarous”.

Nevertheless, Dvorak challenged American composers to study the melodies and sounds that were emerging from the land itself. One can make a case that the “Americana” style of Aaron Copland in the next generation was a realization of this challenge. However, you can also hear a more direct answer to Dvorak’s call in the development of the blues, ragtime and eventually jazz, truly American art-forms.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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