About this Recording
8.570714 - DVOŘÁK, A.: Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" / Symphonic Variations (Baltimore Symphony, Alsop)
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Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 'From the New World' • Symphonic Variations, Op. 78


Antonín Dvořák was born in 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near the Bohemian town of Kralupy, some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should at first have been expected to follow the family trade, as the eldest son. His musical abilities, however, soon became apparent and were encouraged by his father. After primary schooling he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice and was there able to gain the then necessary knowledge of German and improve his abilities as a musician, hitherto acquired at home in the village band and in church. Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission in 1857 to the Prague Organ School, where he studied for the following two years.

On leaving the Organ School, Dvořák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzák, an ensemble that was to form the nucleus of the Czech Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor at the theatre, where his operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride had already been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořák resigned from the orchestra, devoting himself more fully to composition, as his music began to attract favourable local attention. In 1873 he married a former piano pupil, Anna Čermáková, sister of an actress from the theatre and daughter of a Prague goldsmith, and in 1874 became organist of the church of St Adalbert. During this period he continued to support himself also by private teaching, while busy on a series of compositions that gradually became known to a wider circle.

Further recognition came to Dvořák in 1874, when his application for an Austrian government award brought his music to the attention of the critic Eduard Hanslick in Vienna and subsequently to that of Brahms, a later member of the examining committee. The granting of this award for five consecutive years was of material assistance. It was through this contact that, impressed by Dvořák’s Moravian Duets entered for the award of 1877, Brahms was able to arrange for their publication by Simrock, who commissioned a further work, Slavonic Dances, for piano duet. The success of these publications introduced Dvořák’s music to a much wider public, for which it held a certain exotic appeal. As his reputation grew, there were visits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than might initially have been accorded a Czech composer in Vienna.

In 1883 Dvořák had rejected a tempting proposal that he should write a German opera for Vienna. At home he continued to contribute to Czech operatic repertoire, an important element in re-establishing national musical identity. The invitation to take up a position in New York was another matter. In 1891 he had become professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and in the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, an institution intended to foster American music, hitherto dominated by musicians from Europe or largely trained there. Dvořák’s contribution was seen as that of providing a blue-print for American national music, following the example of Czech national music, which owed so much to him. 

The musical results of Dvořák’s time in America must lie chiefly in his own compositions, notably in his Symphony ‘From the New World’, his American Quartet and American Quintet, his Violin Sonatina, and, to a lesser extent, his so-called American Suite, works that rely strongly on the European tradition that he had inherited, while making use of melodies and rhythms that might be associated in one way or another with America. By 1895 Dvořák was home for good, resuming work at the Prague Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. His final works included a series of symphonic poems and two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.

The nine symphonies of Dvořák are variously numbered, since he tried to discard earlier attempts at the form. The last of the symphonies, published as No.5, but in fact the ninth, has the explanatory title ‘From the New World’. It was written in the early months of 1893 and first performed at Carnegie Hall on 16th December of the same year by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Anton Seidl. It was an immediate success.

Dvořák was deeply influenced by America and by the ‘Indian’ and ‘Negro’ music he heard, as well as the songs of Stephen Foster. In Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, which he said he had first read in translation thirty years before, he found an expression of American identity that also took its due place in his symphony. He made it clear that all the themes were original, although shaped by the use of particular rhythmic and melodic features of music of the New World. Nevertheless the symphony retains an inevitable air of Bohemia.

Mrs Jeanette Thurber, who had invited Dvořák to America and whose resources lay at the back of the new National Conservatory, where she offered scholarships to encourage the recruitment of students of any race, colour or social status, had hoped that Hiawatha might form the basis of an American opera from the composer she had hired. The slow movement of the symphony, with its famous cor anglais solo, has been associated with the blessing of the cornfields in Longfellow’s poem, or with Hiawath’s Wooing, and his journey home with his bride, while some have found echoes of the burial of Minnehaha in the forest. The third movement is more clearly associated with Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, when Pau-Puk-Keewis entertains the weddingguests with his dancing, ‘Whirling, spinning round in circles, / Leaping o’er the guests assembled’, energetic activity contrasted with a more properly Bohemian trio section. The final movement, with its reference to what has passed, forms a brilliant conclusion, ending in the quietest possible sustained wind chord.

Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations, Op. 78, were written in the late summer of 1877 and show the composer’s particular ability in the form. It is said that the work was written in answer to a challenge from a friend to write variations on a theme that seemed impossible for the purpose, the male part-song Já jsem huslar (I am a fiddler). The work had some local success when it was first performed, but it was not until ten years later, in 1887, that it won wider acclaim, when it was performed in London and then in Vienna under Hans Richter. The theme itself, marked Lento e molto tranquillo, is started by the strings and continued with the support of the woodwind. The 27 variations that follow demonstrate wit, ingenuity and remarkable invention, with a splendid command of the resources of the orchestra. The work ends with a fugue, its subject stated by the clarinet and second violin, to be answered by the bassoon and viola. The fugue is followed by a series of episodes that establish a much less formal mood.

Keith Anderson

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