Antonín Dvořák’s ‘New World Symphony’ – an ‘American’ anthem that delighted, divided a nation (pt.1)

Antonín Dvořák in 1882, photo: Public Domain

Antonín Dvořák enjoyed near universal popularity in the United States by the time he arrived in New York in September 1892 to lead the National Conservatory of Music. The conservatory’s founder had great hopes his stewardship would elevate the institution to rival those of Europe, while others believed he could help the country’s classical music culture develop its own voice. Dvořák came to believe that “Negro melodies” should form the basis for a distinctly American classical style. He was not the first to say so. But the Czech composer’s outsized stature and outsider status reignited widespread debate about the nature and future of American composition – and exposed racism within the classical music world. So says musicologist Douglas W Shadle, whose latest book traces the 1893 premiere of Dvořák’s most famous piece from his American sojourn.

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, in E minor, “From the New World” is among the universally most beloved and widely performed pieces of classical music today. It also is – just as it was in the 19th century – his most controversial work, and still somewhat shrouded in historical myth. Dvořák’s assertion in a May 1893 interview for the New York Herald Tribune about the potential role of Black vernacular music “launched a months-long debate riddled with racist invective that put the white racial foundation of American classical music on full display”, Prof. Shadle writes in his new book, “Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony”.

“To make a long story short, there was a very ambitious philanthropist named Jeanette Thurber who was very invested in developing an American operatic tradition in the 1880s… And the conservatory had some ups and downs over its first few years, with directors coming and going, she soon realized that maybe having an executive director not so invested in opera was a good idea.

“Her faculty eventually advised her to purse Antonín Dvořák, who at the time was one of the most famous composers in Central Europe and the United Kingdom, with a very strong following among Czech and German, as well as English-speaking musicians. As I outline in the book, his music was very popular in the United States throughout the 1880s.

Douglas W Shadle,  photo: Anne Rayner

“So, there was a lot of incentive to bring in someone with this level of authority in the musical world to New York City. She wanted her conservatory to rival those of Europe, and so offered him an exorbitant amount of money to come – about 15,000 dollars, in the 1890s. She also offered him things like time off in the summer to compose and promised he would be teaching the best composition students. So, he was very attracted to this position.”

The famous Czech composer was invited to lead the National Conservatory of Music by Thurber, a philanthropist of socially progressive causes with whom he would come to advocate providing free education there for exceptional Black musicians. Dvořák could not have imagined that his tenure as conservatory director between 1892 and 1895 would so reflect America’s broader racial divides at the dawn of the Jim Crow era – a period marked by lynching, disenfranchisement, segregation, and the conquest of Native American lands, Prof. Shadle says.

“Part of the story that I think is somewhat misunderstood is that, early on, Dvořák was not enticed by the prospect of developing a specifically American musical style – it was simply to run this conservatory. But that idea of developing one was among the most significant topics within the musical press in the United States, and among musicians.

“As he was planning his trip, and certainly after his arrival, he quickly understood that he would be asked to weigh in on these issues, given that it had been a hot button topic for several years, if not a decade or more. So, Dvořák learned that the stakes of his directorship of the conservatory where quite a bit higher, that he might have an impact on American musical life more broadly through compositional channels.

Photo: Oxford University Press

“And so in May 1893, just about eight months after he arrived, Dvořák famously stated that he thought that music by African-American musicians, this kind of folk music or vernacular music, should become the basis of a classical style. He was not the first person to say this, by any stretch of the imagination. In my book, I go into a long discussion of composers who had thought about it, tried it, and explained why it was good – again, for about 10 or 15 years prior to Dvořák’s arrival.

“But I also show that this view was a minority position at the time; it was not widely accepted. So, for Dvořák to give this kind of international, authoritative imprimatur to the idea really changed the nature of that discourse. All of a sudden, it had a type of cachet it had not had previously. And it so inflamed a lot of by and large negative reactions from American composers. But there was a small contingent of musicians – and most importantly African American musicians –who welcomed and embraced this declaration from Dvořák.

“So, on the one hand, he influenced American composers, but I’d say when it comes to African-American composers and musicians, it was more that he inspired them to continue down a path that they had already wanted to pursue. So, it’s kind of a mutual influence and inspiration.”

The “Dvořák Statement” of May 1893

Dvořák with family and friends in New York in 1893 | Photo: National Museum

In May 1893, just before he planned to leave the city with his family for the summer, the New York Herald Tribune published the explosive interview with what became known as the Dvořák Statement: “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” Dvořák’s New World Symphony, which the New York Philharmonic agreed to premiere in December 1893, was supposed to prove his hypothesis, says Prof. Shadle.

“So, how did he reach this conclusion? In the book, I follow about eight different channels of influence on Dvořák… There were several individuals from different strands of his experience in New York City that brought him to this conclusion, the most important of which was a Black student at the conservatory named Harry T. Burleigh, who was a baritone vocalist and is probably the most well-known companion of Dvořák as far as this side of his residency goes. Burleigh sang spirituals and other vernacular music for Dvořák in his own home, with his children there, and they developed a very good relationship.

“Michael Beckerman, a scholar at New York University, has shown that the music critic James Huneker had a profound influence on Dvořák too. He showed him a music magazine article from 1892 written by a schoolteacher from Louisville, Kentucky, who had compiled street cries streets of African American residents and published them along with an analysis of the musical characteristics. And in that article, she mentions that maybe some ‘musical messiah’ would appear who’d use it as the basis of a classical style. So, I think Dvořák started to get all these ideas.

“There were a few other individuals – such as an older gentleman named Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Civil War veteran who during the conflict and shortly thereafter collected African-American folk music in the South and had shared it in a widely shared essay in 1867. And Higginson incidentally gave the keynote speech after Dvořák’s big arrival concert in October 1982.

“There’s a very famous music critic, Henry Krehbiel who wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, who was another complier of African American folk melodies and became Dvořák’s leading advocate during this period. And I think it’s highly likely they had a lot of conversations on this topic as well. So, Dvořák was getting input from a lot of people in the United States who were invested in the preservation of African American folk music and signaling its importance for American music, culture and history in general.

“So, that Dvořák reached the conclusion he did [about African American music being the basis of a national classical style] I think makes sense, also given his proclivities for using Bohemian folk dance and melody in his earlier pieces, including symphonic pieces. I think one of the more fun aspects of the story is the kaleidoscope of personalities beyond Dvořák who played a role in the story, both feeding in to Dvořák and fanning out from his famous statements in May 1893.”

‘Dvořák! Dvořák!’ - the musical event of the year

New World Symphony premiere,   (c) New York Herald,  16 Dec. 1893

A New York Herald Tribune article published on December 17, 1893 wrote about the premiere of Dvořák’s New World Symphony as being the musical event of the year. It described a night at Carnegie Hall that ended in a thunderous storm of applause and cries of “Dvořák! Dvořák!” as New York hailed the composer. Setting aside historical questions for a moment, I asked the musicologist Prof. Shadle, an expert on 19th century American classical music, what in his view makes the composition so special, so universally beloved today.

“In the introduction to the book, I talk about my own first encounter with the New World Symphony, when I was about 14 – and of course I had no idea about these backstories. I heard it just as a piece of music, if you will. I think there are many musical aspects that are a part of this story but don’t necessarily require knowledge of it. One is the rhythmic vitality and the energy, especially in the three faster movements.

“But beyond that, this music is dramatic. I think that’s the best way to describe it. But each movement is its own micro drama that creates its own story arc from beginning to end. And it’s not the story arc from say of a Beethoven’s fifth symphony, which is from struggle to triumph; it’s not a story arc with leitmotifs like a Richard Wagner opera; it’s a story arc that invokes a wide spectrum of emotions in a way they few other symphonies actually do.

“I mean, symphonies are all rather complex and large and that’s what makes them symphonies – they’re multimovement, that sort of thing. But Dvořák’s New World symphony has a depth and a breadth of emotional expression, dramatic expression, that really makes it stand out. And when you add in all these cultural signifiers, like its engagement with African American music and potentially Native American music and the other non-musical things, like the story of Hiawatha, that Dvořák was thinking about… I think it’s one of the most densely thought-out symphonies in the literature.

“I’m the last person to say that a piece is great for all time, but I would argue that this is the reason so many people have found it so compelling. People tend to want something with human interest and drama in it. And even though it’s instrumental, I think Dvořák has found a way to reach outside purely musical expression to bring people into it. There’s just so much in it to enjoy. The melodies are catchy, the rhythms – it’s truly a wonderful piece.”

In the second part of our discussion with musicologist Douglas W Shadle, author of the book “Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony” (Oxford University Press), we learn more about the specifics of the famous composition; what American influences can be found in the Czech composer’s work; and trace Dvořák’s influence on some of the Black musicians and intellectuals who brought about the Harlem Renaissance, who considered his advocacy of African American spirituals a significant milestone.