Dvorak Celebrates America in 'New World'

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop says Antonin Dvorak's symphony "From the New World" was one of the first big orchestral works to incorporate indigenous American musical ideas. She discusses the music with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Antonin Dvorak was known first and foremost as a champion of folk music from his native Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. But in 1892, he was invited to New York City to lead the newly established National Conservatory of Music, and while there he wrote what's perhaps the first truly American orchestral music score: Dvorak's "Ninth Symphony" from "The New World," still his most popular work.

(Soundbite of music "Symphony No. 9")

SIMON: Maestro Marin Alsop is the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. They have just released a recording of Dvorak's "Ninth Symphony," and she joins us to talk about it. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Thanks, great to be here.

SIMON: Bring us through the "Ninth Symphony" a little, if you could. What would you like to draw our attention to?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, I always like to try to get into the mind of the composer, and really the psychological state. And for me this opening has a melancholy to it and a longing for home. You know, I just imagine him on that ship coming to America. He had a lot of strong hesitation about coming to America, and especially about leaving home. He had a big family, he loved being at home. And so there's a loneliness to this opening that's almost palpable.

(Soundbite of music "Symphony No. 9")

SIMON: He was internationally recognized by the time he came to New York?

Ms. ALSOP: He was. He had been championed by Johannes Brahms, actually, who heard his music and was so taken with his inventiveness of melodic development. And, you know, he felt Dvorak - he really was jealous. He wished he could spin melodies the way Dvorak did. And when he heard this young composer at the time, he went to his publisher and said, listen, you need to publish some of this young Czech's music, and that's how Dvorak really started to get any kind of notoriety.

(Soundbite of music "Symphony No. 9")

SIMON: Was this "Ninth Symphony" markedly different from anything Dvorak had written before?

Ms. ALSOP: Yes and no. If one didn't know the context that it was inspired by this stay and trip to America - I mean, it's so fascinating that in that time it was thought that we needed to import someone to teach Americans how to compose. I mean, that was the concept behind brining Dvorak to America. And of course, it remains the same principle even today, that it takes someone from a distance to come and appreciate what we have here at home.

And Dvorak fell in love, especially with spirituals and indigenous Native American music, and so he highlighted these things. But, that said, I think with the exception of the slow movement, if you didn't know that that was an influence, I think you'd hear more of the Czech and the Slavic influence on this piece, as was the case with all of his incredible symphonies.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of music, "Symphony No. 9")

SIMON: What do you think captured his ear when he came to the United States?

Ms. ALSOP: I think because of his natural tendencies to be so nationalistic about his country, I think he could relate to that wherever he went, you know, whether it was London, whether it was America. And I think that's what interested him because, also, folk music is really the essence of a civilization and a culture, and that's what drew Dvorak, I think, to American music.

And it's not as though he landed in America and suddenly heard American folk music. I mean, he really had to seek it out. And several of his students actually brought spirituals to his attention. One in particular, Harry Burleigh, who was a student - an African-American student of his, saying many of these spirituals to him. So that was one way that he came across this music.

SIMON: I think we have some recordings of Harry Burleigh.

(Soundbite of song, "Go Down Moses")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) When Israel was in Egypt's land, let my people go. Oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go.

Ms. ALSOP: Many of the great artists of the time were coming to - particularly to New York to play and perform. But to have a composer celebrate the basic indigenous American music, I think, put America on the map of legitimacy in a way that we hadn't experienced until now. And it's particularly the slow moment, this beautiful English horn solo. I mean, this is the only thing in the whole symphony that the English horn plays. And so he was saving the quality of the sound which is - it has almost an ethnic quality, you know, it's an instrument that isn't typically used in a symphony.

So when this beautiful English horn comes in playing a melody that, you know, it has this spiritual sound about it, I think that really was a novel compositional concept, and it's so beautiful and so evocative of, I think, what we all imagine America to be.

(Soundbite of music "Symphony No. 9")

SIMON: Dvorak was from a pretty modest background, as I understand.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes. I mean, he wasn't really terribly poor, but certainly wasn't well-off. His education was pretty modest.

SIMON: He only stayed in the United States for three years. He was simply homesick?

Ms. ALSOP: I think he was tremendously homesick, but I think he suffered from a sense of insecurity also about whether he measured up to this whole dramatic judgment of his work. And, you know, as a young composer, the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic refuse to play a piece of his in two consecutive seasons. And there was sort of an inherent prejudice…

SIMON: Because he…

Ms. ALSOP: Because he was from a small country that wasn't renowned for any kind of classical music tradition. I mean, it's a type of prejudice that we're very familiar with. But I think the main thing really was a sense of identity that he had when he was home that he somehow was unable to take with him when he traveled.

SIMON: Were there American composers who might've taken a cue from Dvorak in terms of plumbing the musical experience with their own - bring that into their music rather than look overseas, or in addition to looking overseas for inspiration?

Ms. ALSOP: Almost every composer does it. I mean, you'd think even back to Mozart and when he first was exposed to the Turkish army regiment that played, you know, they used cymbals and - he said, oh, this is a great idea, I have to use that in my music. Or you think of Bela Bartok and his going around and recording all these Hungarian Romanian folksongs that would've been lost, and how he integrated that into his music. Or even Mahler using Klezmer Music, which was, you know, sort of a folk music of his generation.

And maybe the challenge today is to try to preserve that tradition with globalization and the blurring of all the boundaries. It's really hard to stay connected to our own folk music.

(Soundbite of music "Symphony No. 9")

SIMON: Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, thanks so much.

Ms. ALSOP: Great to be here, thanks for having me.

SIMON: And we've been listening to hear performances of Dvorak symphony from The New World.

(Soundbite of music "Symphony No. 9")

SIMON: You can hear Marin Alsop conduct the entire New World Symphony and read her essay about the music at our Web site: npr.org/music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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Dvorak's Symphonic Journey to the 'New World'

Hear Dvorak's Symphony

Marin Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in excerpts from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9: "From the New World."

The complete symphony is available from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The CD will be issued by Naxos records on June 1st, 2008.

Composer Antonin Dvorak

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak crossed the Atlantic in September 1892 to direct the National Conservatory of Music in New York. During his stay, he composed the "New World" Symphony. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
The Brooklyn Bridge, 1898 i i

The Brooklyn Bridge, as Antonin Dvorak would have seen it when he lived and worked in New York in the 1890s. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
The Brooklyn Bridge, 1898

The Brooklyn Bridge, as Antonin Dvorak would have seen it when he lived and worked in New York in the 1890s.

Getty Images

Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, the New World Symphony, is played so often that it runs the risk of sounding hackneyed. That fact became painfully obvious to me during a recent visit to Japan, when I heard the symphony's beautiful English horn melody in a cheesy, electronic rendition, signaling "all clear to walk" at a bustling Sapporo intersection.

As I returned to Dvorak's popular symphony recently, I was struck by how incredibly fresh the music really is. I was reminded of how Johannes Brahms was moved by Dvorak's melodic gifts, as well as his ability to spin a seemingly infinite number of variations on a tune. This, combined with Dvorak's Bohemian heritage, results in music unlike any other composer's.

Symphony No. 9 is nicknamed New World because Dvorak wrote it during the time he spent in the U.S. in the 1890s. His experiences in America (including his discovery of African-American and Native-American melodies) and his longing for home color his music with mixed emotions. There's both a yearning that simmers and an air of innocence.

The music, for me, evokes images. As the symphony opens, I picture Dvorak at the stern of the ship that carries him to America, away from his country. As the land drifts out of sight, he is suddenly jarred by the thought of the unknown with a blast from the French horn.

This slow introduction conveys many emotions — sadness, fear, suspense, even a ray of hope — in its brief 23 measures, until Dvorak eventually chooses which main melody will take over the main part of the movement. A nostalgic folk tune provides simplicity and variety, leading to the second theme, which is really a variation of what came before, illustrating Dvorak's inventiveness with melody.

The New World Symphony's best-known melody surfaces in the "Largo" movement, with its aching English horn solo. It was later adapted into the song "Goin' Home" by Harry Burleigh, a black composer whom Dvorak befriended while in New York. But I'm always moved by the church-like chords that come before that now-famous tune. In a stroke of innovative genius, Dvorak brings these opening chords back at the climax of the finale, where all the melodies from the symphony, reappear, transformed by the journey.

In the scherzo movement that follows, Dvorak explores the dance rhythms and melodies of his heritage. They feel new and fresh, yet familiar at the same time. It contrasts with the finale, which begins with a newfound urgency, setting up the nobility and majesty of the main melody heard in the brass.

The New World Symphony is for me, above all, a journey — Dvorak's journey to America, getting to know its people. But more importantly, it's Dvorak's own spiritual and emotional journey: from his intense longing for his beloved Bohemia to the thrill of the "new world" and its varied peoples, to thoughts of going home.

When all the melodies return at the end of the symphony, I feel as though Dvorak's American adventure has come full circle. The end reminds me of an old film where the last scene is frozen and the circle of the lens closes in until a black screen is all that remains.

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