Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 (“New World”)
Within a few weeks of arriving in this country in the autumn of 1892, Dvořák was at work on a new symphony of “impressions and greetings from the New World”; it had been sketched by late spring 1893 and was completed during the Dvořáks’ summer holiday that year in Spillville.It is true that Dvořák had by that time heard and enjoyed various American folk musics, including that of black Americans, and that the second and third movement grew, according to the composer, from his ruminations on Hiawatha -the Largo possibly inspired by Minehaha’s funeral and the scherzo on an Indian dance described in the poem. But likewise by his own account, Dvořák remained what he always was, a “simple Czech musician.” What seems American about the “New World” Symphony—the cakewalk rhythms, the “primitive” instrumental colours, the folkish melodies—all of these, in truth, are just as typical of the composer’s own native style. The spiritual Goin’ Home was fashioned after Dvořák, not the other way around. And the apparent reference to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in the second theme of the first movement is probably coincidental.
Whatever the ethnicity of the “New World” Symphony, its unmistakable preoccupation is with the out-of-doors. The Adagio introuction, for example, establishes a certain pastorality with the little cakewalk motive first heard in the cellos, then threatens it with ominous thrusts of the strings and parries in the winds and timpani. A horn call arching over more than an octave opens the exposition, answered by dancing figures in the woodwinds. The transitional passage lingers over a jiggish figure drawn from the opening. A hush settles for the second theme from the solo flute, virtually an inversion of the opening horn call. The development treats this relationship extensively , on occasion stormily; the recapitulation is conventional until the transition material is reached, at which point Dvorak embarks on a hair-raising tonal excursion, with the second theme stated in Ab, by any measure a distant key.
The famous Largo is introduced by a solemn chord-progression in low brass and woodwind. Following the familiar English horn solo and its developments, there is a pensive soliloquy that begins in the flute and oboe and carries on in the violins; the retransition pointedly mingles the themes of the first and second movements. the English horn melody returns, and the movement closes with the chord progression that had begun it, but less thickly scored, a little subdued. The scherzo (with triangle), Beethovenian of speed and metric cleverness, focuses on the three-note rhythm stated so prominently in the introduction and which goes on to become a constituent of nearly all the themes. The scherzo itself has a contrastive center section, sostenuto, with a broad melody first stated by flute and oboe; this should not be confused with the trio, which begins with a still gentle but rather livelier dance pattern for the woodwind choir and French horns. In the coda, the horn motive from the first movement is introduced in dialogue with the primary theme of the scherzo.
By now it’s been well established that the symphony has cyclic elements, and we can confidently expect more action along these lines in the finale. A sinister introduction builds into the powerful French horn theme in E minor. Momentum gathers with the triplets and the distant, yearning second theme expands into a second group of themes with a long, dancing digression on a “Three Blind Mice” motive. Moreover, the seam between the exposition and development is imperceptible, a point you grasp for certin when recollections of the Largo and scherzo creep into the fray. Next, Dvořák demonstrates the close affinities between the finale theme and that of the Largo, and finally the theme of the first movement begins to reassert itself. This process of thematic integration takes priority over the recapitulating, and the arrival in the tonic E minor is long delayed. All this serves to release the last stringendo: horn calls, amalgamation of the first—and last—movement themes, galloping figures, and a titanic statement of the big chord progression from the Largo—now fully fleshed out, as though to make up for implications left unresolved earlier. There’s a last fade and recall of the scherzo, and a last tutti on the main themes. The twelve-bar closing, Allegro con fuoco, ends in one of the very difficult final bars in the literature: a long-held chord diminishing in volume to pianississimo.