Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 9, “From the New World”

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Antonín Dvořák was the leading Czech composer of the late 19th century, renowned for bringing the sound of Czech folk music into the concert hall. Writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1895, he summarized the common thinking of the time: “All races have their distinctively national songs, which they at once recognize as their own, even if they have never heard them before.” Especially for Czech, Hungarian, and Russian composers, it became a mission to discover these songs and refine them into a national classical music. 

Americans, too, began to wonder if they should have classical music of their own. Most American orchestras at the time played almost entirely European music and were filled with European musicians. In 1885 the New York philanthropist Jeannette Thurber founded the National Conservatory of Music of America, and in 1892 recruited Dvořák to be its director. She hoped he would help educate local musicians and spur a national style like he had in Bohemia. In the words of the critic H. L. Mencken, he was hired to “introduce Americans to their own music.”

In New York, Dvořák worked with Harry T. Burleigh, a Black composer and singer, who introduced him to a variety of American folk styles. Dvořák concluded that American classical music should draw from African American spirituals as well as the indigenous music of American Indians. He wrote: “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.”

By 1895 Dvořák was homesick, and an economic crisis left the conservatory’s finances, and his expensive salary, in jeopardy. He returned to Europe for good, having completed two major pieces as models: the “American” String Quartet in F major and the “New World” Symphony in E minor. The symphony was premiered by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893, conducted by Anton Seidl, and was immediately met with acclaim. 

There are actually no genuine American folk tunes in the “New World” Symphony—just the sound and spirit of them, made from pentatonic (five-note) scales, drumming patterns, and syncopated rhythms. The middle movements were partly inspired by a poem, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, a romanticized epic about Native Americans. And Dvořák’s own Czech style still remains throughout the piece, even as he tried to overlay it with American elements.

The first movement begins with a slow and quiet Adagio introduction that paints a hazy scene. Then the faster Allegro molto section introduces a bold call-and-response pattern, first heard between the horns and woodwinds. A second theme appears with the flute and oboe playing quietly together in a pentatonic scale—an example of what Dvořák considered an “Indian” sound. The last theme to be introduced is a lyrical flute solo reminiscent of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which Burleigh taught to Dvořák. All these elements are mixed together and recur throughout the movement.

The slow movement, Largo, begins with seven mysterious chords that connect into a famous English horn solo. This, too, sounds like a traditional spiritual or hymn, but was actually composed by Dvořák. In 1922, one of Dvořák’s students added lyrics to it, creating a popular song called “Goin’ Home”—but the symphony came first. Much of the movement develops this melody, including a striking passage where it’s accompanied by a pizzicato walking bass line. After a contrasting section that brings back the opening theme of the first movement, the English horn melody returns and grows warmer with strings.

The third movement, Vivace, begins with a loud falling pattern that is very similar to the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The music here is dancelike, inspired by Hiawatha’s wedding feast in the Longfellow poem.

The finale, Allegro con fuoco, opens with a tense rising half-step pattern in the strings, building to a powerful brass fanfare, and then a second theme in the clarinet. The movement brings back earlier melodies—including “Goin’ Home”—before arriving at a coda and a fortissimo E-major ending. But in a final touch evoking America’s open landscapes, Dvořák adds an echoing chord that fades into silence.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.