Classical Notes

Dvorak's “New World” Symphony

A bizarre aftermath of September 11 has been a resurgence treble clef graphicof protest over how American influence has allegedly sullied the purity of other civilizations, depicting us as a sort of pernicious cultural kudzu overrunning and smothering the world's pristine artistic gardens. But unlike most of the other insidious and groundless propaganda claims that have burgeoned recently, to this one there's a kernel of truth.

After all, with its ready availability and massive appeal, American culture has dominated Classical Classicsmuch of the last century, and its reign promises to continue. While foreign purists may have cowered before incursions of Franglais and Warhol soup cans, our threat to most arts hardly warranted fears of irreparable corruption. In music, though, the uniquely American developments of jazz, blues and rock truly have permanently transformed world culture. So perhaps it's worth recalling that our own roots originated overseas in the first place.

In the late 19th century, European art was roused by the same surge of nationalism that had already transformed Old World politics, as varied cultures found and proudly proclaimed their distinctive voices. But while American literature already had staked a formidable reputation, our serious music (along with painting and theatre) remained mired in Old World models.

That didn't sit well with a handful of American patrons who sought to develop and project our own national character. Among them was Jeanette Thurber, wife of a wealthy New York merchant, who had founded the National Conservatory of Music, a pioneering venture which opened its doors in 1888 to promising African-American musicians but needed strong leadership. She found it in Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904).

Influenced and inspired by his compatriot Bedrich Smetana, Dvorak had achieved great fame as an ardent champion of his beloved Czech music, fluently melding folk-tinged melodies into classical forms. But unlike Brahms, Liszt and other composers who studied folk music from an academic distance and used it as a fleeting exotic diversion, Dvorak's “Moravian Duets,” “Czech Suite,” “Slavonic Dances” and other cornerstones of his early fame were the very essence of his being.

Born and raised a Bohemian peasant, Dvorak never strayed far from his roots. Like the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy. He loved simple pleasures, was enthralled by trains and far preferred a chat with manual laborers to learned discourse. This humble man brought Czech music to the world's attention by showcasing its intrinsic appeal. He often is compared to Schubert, with whom he shared effortless melodies, spontaneous harmonies and a relaxed ease, but Schubert's music wafted from Viennese taverns, while in Dvorak's you could feel the fresh rustic breeze and smell the hale country air.

Dvorak was lured to New York in 1892 with the promise of a fee twenty times his salary in Prague. Upon arrival, he enthusiastically grasped Mrs. Thurber's charge. He proclaimed:

I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.
True to his word, Dvorak immersed himself in African-American music. He was particularly drawn to one of his students, Henry Burleigh, who often sang for Dvorak in his home and who later recalled that Dvorak “saturated himself in the spirit of these old tunes.”

Much of his time in America was occupied by teaching and organizing performances. But above all else Dvorak was a composer and in his first winter in New York he began to write the symphony that would become his most cherished. (It was completed that summer on vacation in Spillville, Iowa, a colony of Czech immigrants who helped assuage Dvorak's intense homesickness.) Formally, the work fell solidly within European tradition, with a sonata-form opening, a meditative largo broken by restless outbursts, a lusty scherzo with bucolic trios and a vigorous, triumphant finish. In keeping with the emerging trend of cyclical form, its themes all germinated from a common seminal motif and returned in the finale. But beginning with its hugely successful premiere that December, its subtitle “From the New World” generated considerable confusion over its inspiration and thematic content.

Resemblance to the atmosphere of Dvorak's prior work suggested to some commentators that the work was most heavily influenced by nostalgia for his beloved Bohemia. But assuming that Dvorak had set out to practice what he preached, others seized upon the prevalence of the syncopated rhythms, pentatonic scales and flattened sevenths of our native music to find a closer tie to America. They noted Dvorak's fascination with the Hiawatha legend and traced the symphony's largo and scherzo to scenes of the funeral and celebratory feast from an opera he had sketched but never pursued. They found especially significant the resemblance of a principal theme of the first movement to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” reportedly one of Dvorak's favorite spirituals. But such speculation has its dangers - it's hard to find much meaning in the far more striking resemblance of a motif in the finale to “Three Blind Mice.” And subsequent critics who went so far as to assert that Dvorak copied his largo from a hymn, “Goin' Home,” were chagrined to realize that the song arose only decades later when lyrics were grafted onto Dvorak's original theme.

The composer himself derided as “nonsense” claims that he used actual Indian- or African-American tunes and insisted that he only wrote “in the spirit” of native American music. In a delightful 1956 lecture, Leonard Bernstein examined each of the themes, traced their origin to French, Scottish, German, Chinese and, of course, Czech sources, and concluded that the only accurate assessment was to consider the work multi-national. But as New York critic James Huneker pointed out in a discerning review of the premiere, the “New World” Symphony was distinctly American in the sense of being a composite, reflecting our melting-pot society. Indeed, much the same could be said for our culture generally - it's made of foreign ingredients but emerges from the cauldron with a clear American flavor.

When Dvorak returned home in 1895, he left behind a legacy even greater than Mrs. Thurber had dared to dream - the very first piece of serious music that, regardless of its traditional form and disputed sources, somehow managed to embody and convey the American spirit. Wildly popular, Dvorak's “New World” Symphony served as an ambassador to legitimize American music to the rest of a dubious world and paved the way to acceptance of our 20th Century cultural exports.

It seems altogether fitting Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony Orchestrathat so many fine recorded performances of the “New World” were led by conductors raised in Dvorak's own Czech traditions, including Karel Ancerl, Istvan Kertesz, Raphael Kubilek, Vaclav Neumann, Libor Pesek, Joseph Suk, Vaclav Talich and Pavel Urbanek. Most of these tend to be smooth, patient and flowing, largely devoid of intensive interpretive touches and, by letting the piece speak for itself, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestraserve to demonstrate just how fine a work it really is. Two of the greatest such “New Worlds” were led by Fritz Reiner and George Szell, who were born in Budapest but followed in Dvorak's footsteps and made careers in America. George Szell and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra Both Reiner's reading with the Chicago Symphony (on RCA CD 62587) and Szell's with the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony MH2K 63151, coupled with splendid performances of Dvorak's two preceding symphonies) are played with precision and loving care, moderately paced, and brim with graceful detail.

In keeping with the character of the work, Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestramore distinctive and individual interpretations come from emigrants who contributed to the richness of our music. Paul Paray, hailing from France, led the Detroit Symphony in a lean, sharp and propulsive reading that's the fastest on record (Mercury 434 317). Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra Arturo Toscanini (Italian) with the NBC Symphony was clean and classic in the studio (BMG 60279) and more emphatic in concert (Arkadia 417). Bruno Walter (German), with the Hollywood-based Columbia Symphony, radiates a tender warmth (Sony 64484). Leopold Stokowski (English, but among the most fervent advocates of our music), was impulsive and improvisatory (even adding climatic braying brass and cymbal crash “improvements”) in his six (!) recordings, of which the most unbuttoned and thrilling was with his hand-picked American Youth Orchestra in 1940 (Music and Arts 841).

It seems especially apt Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestrathat the “New World” received two of its finest performances from the most influential American-born conductor. Leonard Bernstein's 1962 reading with the New York Philharmonic (Sony 47547 or 60563) pulses with the very type of brash idealistic enthusiasm that inspired DvorŠk to have created it. Leonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Incidentally, don't be misled by timings - Bernstein's 11-minute opening movement is every bit as swift as Toscanini's 8½; the difference lies in a repeat of the entire exposition rather than the tempo.) Bernstein's poignant largo and bounding scherzo lead to a massive finale, a deeply moving vision of a future filled with strength, resolve and dignity that seems especially timely. A 1986 remake (DG 427 346) is more deliberate and profoundly moving, played with great feeling by the Israel Philharmonic, an ensemble founded by Holocaust refugees who surely knew the meaning of freedom.

But analyses of art should never be so simple. Indeed, an even more striking performance generated mystery over its confusing origins and still raises intriguing qualms over its pedigree. When the records first surfaced from wartime archives, they were thought to comprise a 1941 Berlin Philharmonic concert by Wilhelm Furtwšngler, who had programmed this work during the War and was known for irritating his Nazis overseers by championing music of “enemy” peoples. Its 1981 release on a Swiss LP bore authentication by three musicologists and one of Furtwšngler's musicians, but further research concluded that it was by the Munich Philharmonic led by Oswald Kabasta in one of his very last performances from July 1944. With seething melodrama and blazing intensity, Kabasta internalized the “New World” and transformed it into a tortured and desperate cry for a freedom he would never taste - distraught by his wartime role, he killed himself in 1946. It's an emotional roller-coaster, festering in the dank air of repression, its hazy light filtered by skepticism, its deceptively smooth transitions teasingly sarcastic.

So - a Bohemian vision of a vital and free America potently conveyed by a conflicted Nazi. Ironic, to be sure, and yet compelling proof of the universality of great music.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2001 by Peter Gutmann

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