1893: Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (NEW WORLD) in E minor

SATURDAY, October 31, 2020 – 12:59 PM

Symphony No. 9, E minor, age 52

It was nearly the beginning of the 20th century when this was composed. Dvorak was living in the US at the time and was very interested in American music. The music was a huge hit from it’s premiere, so it is another example of “new music” that was immediately popular. It has been popular for more than 125 years.

Instrumentation…

  • piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 bassoons
  • 3 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, triangle, cymbals
  • strings

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

The second recording here remains my pick, by Paavo Järvi. But this one, with Andrés Orozco-Estrada, is a close 2nd, and very important to me because it is live, and we can see them do this. There are similarities in conception that make me pretty sure that Estrada knows the Jarvi recording. There is incredible  similarity in the way slow themes are sharped.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Paavo Järvi

The first time this recording got my attention was the first timpani entrance. Every other recording sounds a bit polite. In this one the timpani strikes sound like thunder claps. There are many more places where this interpretation just can’t be listened to casually. It’s incredibly intense, and the contrasts are huge. This remains my favorite performance and recording to this very moment.

1st movement

This goes back to Beethoven, who made slow introductions really important. Mozart did it it too, but Beethoven, as in so many other matters, established the tradition. Then the rest of the movement is clearly sonata form, but you won’t know that unless you have studied form. Otherwise you just know it hangs together. Note the use of timpani. This goes right back to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the 2nd movement.

2nd movement

The most famous theme here, and one of the most famous in the history of music, is “Goin’ Home”. The structure remains rock solid, so here you have the perfect mix of a hummable tune with tight writing that goes all the way back to Mozart and Beethoven.

3rd movement

Back to E minor, and more modes, mostly Aeolian or natural minor. In fact, this is more Bohemian than American, so you hear things that are very similar to his Slavonic Dances. For me the most striking rhythmic thing is that he is often using 2/4 time instead of 3/4, but never changing the time signature. This is known as a “hemiola”.

4th movement

There is more modal writing here, mostly natural minor, but what makes me smile is the first entrance. Did Williams get his idea for Jaws from this?

1893…

It was nearly the beginning of the 20th century when this was composed. Dvorak was living in the US at the time and was very interested in American music. The symphony was a huge hit from it’s premiere, so it is another example of “new music” that was immediately popular.

Incredibly popular for more than 125 years…

This is one of those magic symphonies that caught on immediately with the public, and I’ve never read anything negative from critics. Dvorak in general was a star in the US, and this piece caught the imagination of all who heard it. It was the closest thing to viral that anything could be in 1893, and its popularity has never faded. This is where critics and the general public were and remain in absolute agreement. I loved this when I was young, and I love it even more now.

Popular music…

The famous theme from the 2nd movement is not a spiritual but something written by a pupil, William Arms Fisher.

Call it a “fake spiritual”, but it has the right sound. Then there is another theme in the 1st movement that is very close to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariots”. Much of the symphony is also very modal, and important themes are pentatonic.

It has the sound of film music…

There were no films yet, but you can hear how modern composers have been influenced. All through the 20th century, and right through to today you will hear the influence of this music.

It’s tight composition…

For instance, the 1st movement is sonata form. So the form is very traditional, and that makes it hang together fantastically. When a composer puts together tight structure with expansive ideas, you get a home run.

Never forget about Wagner…

There are so many things to love about this symphony. You hear the drama, and the morphing, but when you put it all together with modes and other ideas, you won’t hear it unless you know it’s there. Then you hear it. Mature composers sound so much like themselves that their earlier influences are much harder to catch. So no one new to music is going to hear this and think, “Oh, there’s Wagner. I know where he got that from.” But the Wagnerian influence is part of the building blocks.

Bohemia…

Dvorak was born in Bohemia, which today is part of the country know as the Czech Republic. I know of this name mostly from “A Scandal in Bohemia”, a famous Sherlock Holmes story.

From Bohemia to the US…

The Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, Op. 95, is popularly known as the New World Symphony.

It was composed while he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America from 1892 to 1895 and is  one of the most popular of all symphonies.

How did Symphony No. 9 get recorded as Symphony No. 5?

It was originally numbered as Symphony No. 5., and I found out why.  The 1st symphony was thought destroyed, so it was not even counted. Then the next symphonies were also not counted. By the 3rd and 4th, Dvorak was gaining support, but even then he was submitting his music to a sort of competition. Brahms was in his corner before Dvorak even knew it. It was only by around the 5th symphony that he really started to gain fame, so for a long time the 6th through the 9th were considered his five symphonies. People have started to pay far more attention to the first five symphonies only since around the 1950s.

American influence…

Dvorak was interested in Native American music and the African-American spirituals he heard in North America. Throughout the world two systems tend to show up in music in a way that transcends culture and regions. One is the pentatonic scale, and Dvorak used it a lot. The second is taking a simple major scale but using it modally. That’s where you get natural minor, just 6 to 6 in any major scale, and Dvorak always used that frequently, but in this symphony it is especially obvious.

The modes plus pentatonic are used to convey the feeling of Native Americans, and even the spirit of American.

He stated this, talking about things like spirituals:

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 addition, he said:

I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral color.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”…

A a flute solo theme in the first movement of the symphony resembles the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

Dvořák was also influenced by the style and techniques used by earlier classical composers including Beethoven and Schubert.

The use of flashbacks to prior movements in the New World Symphony’s last movement is reminiscent of Beethoven quoting prior movements in the opening Presto of the Choral Symphony’s final movement. Increasingly composers began

At the premiere in Carnegie Hall, the end of every movement was met with thunderous clapping…

This is just great to read. For once there were no critics poisoning the water, and the listeners were ready for the music. Dvorak felt obliged to stand up and bow. But often such triumphs are the flavor of the time, and the huge support in the beginning fades. There is no such fading here. It’s just as loved in 2020 as it was in 1893, and that by itself is a miracle.

Unusual instrumentation…

So much goes back to Beethoven. He was probably the first person to use piccolo seriously in a symphony. Here the piccolo only plays a he piccolo plays only a short phrase in the 1st movement, and nothing else.

Then English horn is front and center in the 2nd movement, something Franck also did in his D Minor Symphony, written in 1888. Did Dvorak know this? I’d like to think he did.

Tuba is only scored in the second movement. According to the full score book published by Dover, Trombone basso e Tuba is indicated in some measures in the second movement; the bass trombone is used with the two other trombones in movements 1, 2 and 4.

 

10 thoughts on “1893: Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (NEW WORLD) in E minor

  1. As an oboist, I adore the English Horn solo, so I’ve always been a bit partial to this piece. It was the harmonies here that made me realize how well double reeds and clarinets fit together.

    1. You just have to get close.

      First start with this:

      It’s like “jock”, but with “zh”. Then say DOOR zhock. Then stick in a V: DVOR zhock. Voila! You just get close. No one expects Americans to even get that far. 🙂

  2. Dvorak is quite the name along with its pronunciation, his piece is something I hear a lot in shows, movies, all lot of video games, etc. Its sounds quite soothing to me maybe a bit sad who knows I don’t know.

    1. Happy and sad are complicated words. Can something be soothing but also sad? These great composers could express a lot of conflicting emotions in the same piece of music.

  3. This piece was written about 126 years ago and is still being played today. I have enjoyed listening to this music many times.

    I now have an idea of how to pronounce Dvorak.

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