Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reading Dvořák's 9th

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), like Beethoven, left behind nine numbered symphonies. The last one, in E minor, is subtitled "From the New World" because he wrote it in New York. Dvořák wrote several of his best-known works in America, including a quartet inspired by his stay in a Czech-American village in Iowa. A Romantic composer of the nationalistic vein (his music often hearkened to the folk music of Czech, Slovak, and similar ethnic backgrounds), Dvořák did not hesitate to express his opinion that American art-music needed to ground itself in its own indigenous folk tradition, if it would find a distinctive voice.

It was a controversial opinion, and still is; but many people, including Dvořák himself, have taken this symphony as a demonstration of what he was getting at. Though he was inconsistent on the subject of how he came up with the themes of this symphony, it is generally agreed that the music of the "New World Symphony" is at least influenced by the Negro spirituals and Native American folk music Dvořák encountered during his American travels. The fact that, at times, it sounds like main title music from a mid-20th-century Western movie may be owing to film composers' often-remarked penchant for plagiarism. But it is hard to deny that Dvořák's Ninth captures something of the quintessential spirit of America.

The first movement begins with a dramatic, slow introduction with foreshadowings of the main theme to follow. Then it is upon us, a thrilling and memorable theme with a long-short-short-long rhythm. The gentler second theme has a similar rhythm in it, and has been compared to the spiritual "Swing low, sweet chariot."

The second movement, well known to many a first-year piano student, is a deeply moving lament that some regard as a musical depiction of Hiawatha's tears, while others interpret it as an imitation Negro spiritual. There are actually lyrics to this theme, a song called "Goin' Home," but in fairness to Dvořák it should be noted that the lyrics were written after the symphony; Dvořák maintained that his themes were original, though built on the distinctive rhythms and scales of Native American music. If you give this movement a chance and hear it through, you will hear other themes, beautifully blending shadow and light; and a heart-gripping conclusion in which the Hiawatha theme hesitates as if choking on its tears.

The third movement is a scherzo in something of a rondo form, with an opening reminiscent of the scherzo of Beethoven's 9th. The main theme of the refrain could have come from the scherzo of any of Dvořák's symphonies, with its Slavonic dance-like character; the intervening episodes, however, include more of those nice pentatonic themes (i.e. you could play them on the black notes of a piano) that come out like theme music from a cowboy movie.

The finale borrows another page from Beethoven's 9th, making more or less subtle references to the earlier movements while also developing its own majestic theme. Listen for long-short-short-long phrases in the bass line, a moment of Hiawatha sobbing, and even a touch of the scherzo at different points in this movement. But don't worry; there is no big choral fantasy here. It's just a thrilling orchestral finale with some of Dvořák's most distinctive harmonies and orchestral colors. And if it conjures images of the vastness and grandeur of America, well...that may be the result of the power of suggestion rather than anything intrinsic in the music, but who knows? Maybe Dvořák had that on his mind too.

EDIT: In the video below, Herbert von Karajan conducts the first movement of this symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic.

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