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Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World," analysis by Gerard Schwarz (part 1)

Watch the full performance here. Created by All Star Orchestra.

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Video transcript

(Symphony No. 9 in E Minor by Antonin Dvorak) - Dvorak wrote nine symphonies. The Ninth certainly is the most popular and it was extremely popular from the time it was premiered. It is extraordinary when you think that Dvorak wrote some of his greatest music those few years that he was in New York and in Spillville, Iowa, the cello concerto, the American string quartet, and this great symphony, among other works. The symphony begins in a kind of melancholy way. The cellos play this very soft little theme, but it's an introduction, like all symphonies from Mozart and Haydn on, they had that slow introduction. It starts with a melancholy, beautiful soft gesture from the cellos accompanied by the other strings and then all of a sudden a horn has a little, almost a fanfare, a couple of notes, but it's startling. (orchestral music) The introduction then goes to the woodwinds, the flute leading with oboes accompanying and bassoons eventually. Same thing happens. Very beautiful, soft, elegant, but this time the strings come in fortissimo, loud, and then the timpani come in, the woodwinds answer. It's a really extraordinary moment. (orchestra playing) Then you hear this little agitated section, the woodwinds. (orchestra playing) Two horns come in playing this theme which eventually will be theme one. That's repeated (orchestra playing) A little aggressive, violent string playing especially from the second violins and violas. (orchestra playing) A little timpani solo, and we're into the body of the movement. And sure enough it begins with those two horns, the third and the fourth horn, playing the first theme. What Dvorak does so interestingly is he doesn't take two melodic groups and then repeats it, develops it and then recapitulates it. No, he has many melodies. He has so many melodies just throughout the whole piece and he brings them back as I'll show you. So, it begins with the horns, repeated, extended by the clarinet and bassoon, and then the strings play that melody loud, fortissimo. Then it backs away, it starts to crescendo and sure enough the trombones play the melody. (orchestra playing) The extension now is by the strings rather than the clarinets and the bassoons. It's all strong. It's remarkable. (orchestra playing) The second theme, which certainly sounds like a folk melody of some kind, is played by the flute and the oboe. (orchestra playing) Then the second violins take it over. Then the cellos and basses take it over. Then it's somewhat developed. So again a little different in symphonic form than we're used to because he takes that theme and rather than just moving on he actually develops that theme at that moment. (orchestra playing) And next we have what we consider the third theme. It's introduced by the low flute. Dvorak also did some remarkable things in terms of instrumentation. The use of the flute in this register is unusual and it's poignant and very different sounding than it would be if an oboe played it or a clarinet. And I think, a stroke of genius. (orchestra playing) Violins take over the same material. (orchestra playing) And then, the cellos and basses come over with the same tune but now they're playing the same tune fortissimo. (orchestra playing) We arrive now at the repeat. So, Dvorak asks us to repeat the whole beginning. Many conductors do not do this repeat. I'm a great believer in it, obviously because Dvorak wrote it, but secondarily there is so much material that he has given us, so many themes already and development of those themes in a small ways that we really need to hear it again as far as I'm concerned. And after the repeat we have this third theme. This time it's played as a horn fanfare. So, it's a completely different sound. The horn plays a little fanfare and it's echoed by a piccolo solo. Again, a remarkable stroke of orchestrational genius on Dvorak's part. (orchestra playing) The trumpets take over, the oboes extend it. (orchestra playing) And then we get the trumpet play theme three. (orchestra playing) And then the trombones play theme one. (orchestra playing) Then we do the same thing with the horn playing theme three. And trombones play theme one. (orchestra playing) After this combination again it's developed slightly, we get to what we consider the recapitulation where we go back to the first theme played by the third and the fourth horn, and it is pretty clear. Then the oboe plays it, then the flute does the extension. The violins play it quite loudly. And at the end of that it gets softer and softer. And now we have a solo for the second flute bringing in again the second theme and just in a beautiful soft way and then that gets extended by all of the woodwinds. (orchestra playing) The recapitulation continues in obvious fashion. After this development section we make a decrescendo or diminuendo and folk theme comes again played by the second flute. (orchestra playing) All of these themes get developed towards the end of the movement and it comes to an end. There's very little what we could call filler. Very little sequential material. It's all very direct with these themes the way they're developed, the way they're combined. And the movement goes by and it feels like it takes a minute because it's so remarkable. (orchestra playing) Interestingly that he never brings back the opening material from that introduction, which is something rare in his case as you'll see as we go through this piece.