This Week in Music History: The premiere of Dvořák’s New World Symphony (1893)

They don’t do symphonic premieres like they used to.

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? A recognizably “American” work written by a Czech master…

They don’t do symphonic premieres like they used to. The first performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” took place in New York’s Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893, amid sky-high anticipation. The press had previewed the new symphony extensively, even leaking a few of its themes to an eager readership. A public rehearsal on the afternoon of the 15th had sold out, with people queueing down the street in the pouring rain. And the first performance itself? The New York Herald observed: “It saw a large audience of usually tranquil Americans enthusiastic to the point of frenzy over a musical work and applauding like the most excitable ‘Italianissimi’ in the world.”

Now, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony is a wonderful composition. More than that: it’s one of his masterpieces. But how did it manage to get everyone as excited as that—even, it would appear, before they had actually heard it?

The story had begun two and a half years earlier, in June 1891, when Jeanette Thurber, a classical music patron and the founder of the National Conservatory of Music, made the famous Prague-based composer a startling proposition. She offered him a post at her American conservatory the following year on a three-year contract, with a salary of $15,000—something like $400,000 in today’s money, and more than 25 times what he was paid in his homeland. It was a tough decision to leave his beloved Bohemia, but the offer proved too good to resist.

Why Dvořák? For one thing, he was a famous figure, some of whose works were already known in the US. But a second reason hints at Thurber’s broader aim. Dvořák was renowned, then as now, as something of a (musical) nationalist: by drawing on his national folk music, Dvořák brought Bohemian tradition proudly into the concert hall. Thurber, and many of her compatriots, were determined to forge a style of national music particular to America.

So they hoped that Dvořák would help them create a truly “American” music. The New York Evening Post wrote on October 1, 1892, less than two weeks after he had arrived in the country:

“His ideas and his style have qualities which permit us to say: This is Czech; just like Chopin’s mazurkas or Liszt’s rhapsodies elicit from us the cry: that’s Polish or that’s Hungarian, even if we haven’t heard it before. Let’s then allow Dvořák to educate American composers with this in mind; may he show them how it is possible to be a pupil of German masters, yet write in a new, national style.”

The “New World” Symphony was written during Dvořák’s first year in the States, and showed that he had taken his brief seriously. In May 1893, he told the papers, “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” Though he denied that the Symphony used real African American melodies, Dvořák sought to capture their spirit in his original themes. It’s easy to understand the first audience’s wild enthusiasm for this composition: not only is it a brilliant symphony in its own right, it’s also a work of real importance in American music history.

Are all the tunes Dvořák originals? Many have pointed out the suggestion of the famous spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the first movement (above). But other themes probably are original—most famously, of course, that beautiful melody from the slow second movement, so poignant and evocative that it was itself transformed into a spiritual-like song by an American pupil of Dvořák’s, William Arms Fisher, with the title “Goin’ Home.”

Though not an “original” spiritual, the song and its lyrics strike a poignant chord. The subject matter of returning home was common in spirituals, but it also perhaps hints at the homesickness of Dvořák himself. It’s easy enough to hear the Ninth Symphony’s famous Largo as a nostalgic evocation of Dvořák’s own homeland.

Did Dvořák succeed in his mission to create an original “American” music? You could argue it either way. Perhaps he did something even better: create a piece of music that hints at what we all have in common, no matter where we live.

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