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Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World", a commentary by Joseph Horowitz

Created by All Star Orchestra.

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Video transcript

- A useful way to look at the New World Symphony to figure out what's going on is to look at the way it ends. Because no other symphony ends the way the New World Symphony ends. It ends with a dirge. Do you remember how the ending is? ("Symphony No. 9" by Dvorak) And then the final chord, which is E major, (piano chord playing) is marked with a diminuendo, fading into silence. So to make sense out of this ending, you obviously have to refer to something more than music. You cannot, in purely musical terms, account for the ending of the New World Symphony. To account for the ending of the New World Symphony, you have to look at this little book, The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poem beloved by Dvorak. He first read it in Czech, then he read it in English. And he told us, he told reporters this is a major source of inspiration for the New World Symphony. And you read the ending of The Song of Hiawatha, and you'll read a description of the ending of the New World Symphony. And I'll read it to you. On the shore stood Hiawatha, turned and waved his hand at parting. On the clear and luminous water launched his birch canoe for sailing. From the pebbles of the margins shoved it forth into the water, whispered to it, "Westward, westward," and with speed it darted forward. And the evening sun descending set the clouds on fire with redness, burned the broad sky like a prairie, left upon the level water one long track and trail of splendor, down whose stream as down a river westward, westward Hiawatha sailed into the fiery sunset, sailed into the purple vapors, sailed into the dusk of evening. So this dusk of evening and these purple vapors and the sadness of this departure are written into the end of the New World Symphony. Remember also how the symphony begins. It begins with song of sorrow and the low strings. What's going on here is that you have a man who comes to the United States in 1892, and is handed a mandate by Jeannette Thurber, the founder of the National Conservatory of Music, to help American composers create an American school of music, American concert music that Americans will recognize as their own. He's a cultural nationalist. He says okay, show me your folk music. He chiefly finds it in two places. Native Americans, African-Americans. Dvorak is a butcher's son. Dvorak is a compassionate man. He's an instinctive Democrat. He says, "I look to the poor for musical greatness." So his compassionate response is to the black American who was enslaved, the red American who is now at risk of extinction. And this sadness permeates the New World Symphony. And there are other sources of sadness in this symphony. The American West, Dvorak had never seen such a vast, uninhabited terrain. He said that it seemed to him, "Desolate, sad to despair." And finally, Dvorak was homesick for Bohemia. All of these sources of sadness contribute to the elegiac complexion, which is also majestic for the New World Symphony. I once had occasion in a book, A History of Classical Music in America, to try to describe all of this in just a few sentences, and I'll read it to you. With its Indian threnody, the coda, a dead march, a cry of pain, a loud last chord fading to silence, sealed one of the symphony's meanings. It is all of it an elegy for a vanishing race. Embracing the myth of the noble savage, the New World is far the best of the many musical evocations of Hiawatha. Embracing the myth of the virgin West, it is the most eloquent musical equivalent of the canvases of George Catlin, Frederic Remington, and Albert Bierstadt. And obviously crucially, Dvorak's sadness of the prairie and sadness of the Indian resonate as well with homeward longings, and with who knows what other personal sadnesses. More than a Bohemian symphony with an American accent, From the New World is a reading of America drawn taut emotionally by the pull of the Czech fatherland.