Antonín Dvořák’s ‘New World Symphony’ – an ‘American’ anthem that delighted, divided a nation (pt.2)
Antonín Dvořák’s ‘New World Symphony’ – an ‘American’ anthem that delighted, divided a nation (pt.2)
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Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, in E minor, “From the New World”, is among the most widely beloved and performed pieces of classical music today. It premiered in December 1893, less than a year after the famous Czech composer became head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Many hoped he would help develop a distinctly American style of classical music. While Antonín Dvořák did not embrace that role, he thrust himself into the debate by proclaiming, “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” was supposed to prove his hypothesis. To what extent did he actually draw on African American music? How did Black musicians and intellectuals of the late 19th century perceive the composition? As Prof. Douglas W Shadle lays out in detail in his book, others had argued before that Black music should have a place in American classical music, and quite a few white composers had been inspired to try using aspects of it in their work. But Antonín Dvořák’s stature rekindled and advanced debate – often overtly racist – about the nature of American composition and what direction it might or should take in future, with his May 1893 pronouncement about the role of “Negro melodies”.
“That 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.”
What’s more, Dvořák and the National Conservatory of Music founder, Jeannette Thurber, began admitting promising Black students free of charge in the fall semester of 1893, a year after his arrival. As part of that effort, they elevated former African American students to the faculty – such as the baritone vocalist Harry T. Burleigh, who sang spirituals and other vernacular music for Dvořák and his family, and hired violinist and conductor Walter F. Craig, the first African American in the musician’s union at the time.
“Dvořák was, I think, quite invested in the professional and personal well-being of Black musicians, which really went against the grain, at the time. Now, I show in the book though that it was sort of a double-edged sword, in that he clearly did not understand the depth of controversy that this type of arrangement would elicit, and so he again found himself embroiled in vigorous racist debates about the quality of Black musicians and that sort of thing.
“But after he enrolled all these students free of charge, Dvořák later along with Thurber, wanted to develop an entire branch of the school devoted to the study of Black music and cultivation of Black musicians. He let his final contract expire before that could come to fruition, but that was going to be his next project. It would have been one of just a handful in the entire country, along with the Hampton Institute, which preserved Black sacral music, and the Fisk University, which had the Jubilee Singers…
“So, Dvořák was very progressive in this regard but with a certain naiveté about the full philosophical repercussions behind it. But that was a refreshing thing for me to encounter. This visitor from abroad who didn’t come with prevailing stereotypes in the United States, and says, well, it doesn’t make any sense that these people didn’t have the same opportunities, and why don’t we fix that? And I think he did what he could to help.”
At that time, in the late 19th century, many Americans of white European origin who claimed cultural ties to the music of their national ancestry, considered the music of enslaved Africans, as well as Native Americans, ‘barbaric’ – and therefore un-American, Prof. Shadle found through his research, scouring mainstream and specialized publications, including Black-run newspapers, and myriad primary sources.
The day before Dvořák’s New World Symphony premiered, in December 1893, the New York Herald Tribune had run an extensive description of the work, replete with musical examples that the critic Henry Krehbiel had gleaned from the manuscript score (“A pervasive element in African music.” “Distinctively negro characteristic.” “The story of Hiawatha’s wooing.”)
‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’
It has long been agreed that Dvořák referenced “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” among the African American spirituals that his student Harry T Burleigh had sung for him, the earliest known recording of which, by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, came a decade later. However, on other scores, so to speak, the jury is perhaps as divided now as it was then, Prof. Shadle notes.
“Dvořák’s actual engagement – direct musical engagement with specific songs has been hotly debated ever since the symphony premiered – did they recognize certain themes or not. I think the inspiration of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ is unmistakable in the first movement (vocalizes).
“It has the exact same melodic shape and contour; it is just a different rhythm. We have evidence from accounts by Harry T Burleigh saying that Dvořák was most interested in this song when he sang it. So, I’m fairly convinced that melody was on his mind as he constructed this new rhythmic and sort of adapted it.”
The French horns of the New World Symphony's second movement, called the “Largo,” are iconic – instantly recognizable to classical music lovers. But many will know the underlying melody in a very different context – that of a song called “Goin’ Home’, often sung at funerals – and assume that it, too, derives from an African American spiritual that inspired Dvořák.
In fact, it’s the other way around. In an ironic twist, Burleigh’s direct influence on the New World Symphony has been overshadowed, notes Prof. Shadle.
‘Goin’ Home’ and Dvořák’s ‘Largo’
“The ‘Goin’ Home’ lyrics were written by one of Dvořák’s students later, to the Largo theme; my understanding is that the Largo theme is original to Dvořák – 100 percent original –although Michael Beckerman, a scholar at New York University, has shown that it was inspired perhaps a bit by his engagement with Native American music. And we could do a whole other interview about that!
“In any case, Dvořák’s student William Arms Fisher, a white student, and a publisher at the firm Oliver Ditson, put together a collection of African American sacred music, as had many Black compilers. And Fisher published this faux spiritual with the Largo theme in ‘Black dialect’, so a bit in the blackface minstrel tradition, transformed into parlor-style sacred music. That was part of the commercial industry in 1920s, but Dvořák’s tune has obviously taken on new life and significance with those words attached to it. It’s very common at funerals.”
Upon the premiere of the New World Symphony, The New York Evening Post wrote of it, “Anyone who heard it could not deny that it is the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country.” A number of Black musicians and commentators were less enthused, at least when it came to talk of the Czech composer’s work having a “distinctively negro characteristic”, says Prof. Shadle.
“I have a great quotation from one of Dvořák’s students, Will Marion Cook. I’m paraphrasing, but he wrote an article in 1898, shortly after Dvořák left, where he says that Dvořák was a great thinker, a great musician, and tried very hard to understand the emotional depth of Black folk music, but only someone who has suffered what Black Americans have suffered could truly make the expression authentic. And so Will Marion Cook said that a Black American composer would be the one to fulfil Dvořák’s vision of an American style.
“He wasn’t’ using the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’, but that’s what he meant. (As a sidebar, I think there’s a lot of confusion about what ‘cultural appropriation’ is: it’s not that there are very rigid boundaries about who can use what but rather the level of understanding and empathy that one brings along with direct engagement). I think what Cook was saying was that if there were people at the time who thought that Dvořák was being authentic, then they need to rethink that attitude, that’s there’s a different kind of authenticity that Black composers can bring to an enterprise that reflects their experience and identity.
“And so Cook is urging musicians and listeners to consider that there are multiple modes of expression that different identities bring to the table. So he’s saying let’s not let Dvořák overshadow these other ways of expression. I think that’s part of what comes out, as I mentioned earlier, when these critics start using Dvořák as the metric. Well, Cook said very early on that there should be more than just one metric. Letting people speak for themselves is what Cook had in mind – as with many other Black musicians.
“So, yes, there certainly was a sense among many Black musicians that Dvořák was what we would now call a ‘cultural appropriator’. But they were heavily ambivalent about it because he certainly brought to the forefront of public discussion the importance of Black music. So these individuals tended to be appreciative of that fact.”
Prof. Shadle says that one of the most surprising things he learned about New World Symphony while doing the research for his book was the life that it had after the premiere. In his book, he dedicates an entire chapter to various strands of its reception – among white and Black Americans, and classical musicians – after Dvořák leaves.
The Harlem Renaissance
“It becomes a touchtone piece for many different strands of intellectual and musical history in the United States afterwards. On the one hand, it becomes very inspirational for the intellectuals who would become a part of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was very much inspired by the reclamation of African American folk music and vernacular music as a specifically Black form of musical expression, as a kind of Black national identity, and Dvořák indirectly – through the symphony and the publicity he was giving these ideas – as I mentioned earlier, gave a sort of legitimacy and authority to these ideas.
“So many Black intellectuals, for one if not two generations, continued to pursue that line of thinking. I show that there were many Black writers, including famous ones like W.E.B. du Bois, who thought of Dvořák and his advocacy of the spirituals as a significant milestone in Black musical culture. On the flip side, many white American critics used Dvořák’s symphony – and this is perhaps the most surprising thing, and yet not surprising if you think about it – as a tool for discounting the value of music by Black composers.
“There’s a notorious case in 1934 where the Black composer William Dawson premieres a piece called the Negro Folk Symphony, with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra – so a great orchestra and a great conductor – that played over four nights. And immediately, a few critics say that he plagiarized Dvořák, stole his ideas, that Dvořák did all of it better.
“So, they used the New World Symphony as the single standard for judging Black composers as well, without allowing them to have their own voice. When you think about the history of race relations in the United States, it’s not surprising at all to discover that. But when see it right in front of your eyes, that’s very much a light bulb moment, that in fact, when we talk about racism in the classical music industry today, it really has been going on in various forms since the country was founded.
“Learning about the various manifestations of racist attitudes and actions by other classical musicians was very eye-opening. And I think it’s important for people to know this history rather than to try to cover it up or pretend it’s not there within classical music.”