THE BEST OF CZECH CLASSICAL MUSIC, PART 4: Largo, from Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony

Antonín Dvořák

Czech classical music is not only a part of national culture and history, but also of the nation’s soul. This year we have prepared a series on the renowned hits of Czech classical music. You will be familiar with many of them, as they are widely known and regularly performed in concert halls all over the world. The background to their creation and how they were recorded will all be covered by this series in the coming weeks.

Antonín Dvořák

Dvořák: Largo

A New York Herald article published on December 17, 1893 wrote about 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. The article was reporting on the memorable premiere of Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

New World Symphony
How did Dvořák achieve such fame? Was it the music in itself, or did his social standing also help? Dvořák was then the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City, which was, at the time, a very prestigious position.

But there is no doubt that what captivated the audience was Dvorak’s music. The Symphony Number 9 in E minor, known as “The New World Symphony” or "From the New World" is the composer’s last symphony and also his most significant symphonic work in general. That night the music-loving New York public felt that they had experienced the absolute peak of romanticism in music and one of the best symphonic works of all time.

Dvořák’s work received raving reviews. Critics of the time praised his exceptional musical inventiveness and some even saw him as having laid the foundation for a new American genre of music.

But back to Largo, from Dvořák’s New World Symphony, which is strong particularly in its melody. The melody is at first carried by the English horn, which is quite an unusual solo instrument in an orchestra. Dvořák was very familiar with the instrument’s melancholy tone, and it exactly conveyed his mood and emotions. The composer shares more of his longing for home here than in any other part of the symphony, and the English horn plays a significant role in conveying those feelings of homesickness.

For a composer, it is difficult to write a contrasting middle part of a slow movement in such a way that the movement doesn’t lose its compactness. That’s why Dvořák replaced the calm English horn with a melancholy mood that loosens up the whole orchestra, creating one of the most famous movements of musical history.

New World Symphony flies to the Moon

Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony with him to the Moon on the famous Apollo 11 flight in 1969. And, just a fun fact, the symphony’s fourth part has for years been the anthem of the Bureau of International Expositions. Parts and whole movements of the New World Symphony belong among the most renowned sounds in all of classical music.

Photo: Kristýna Maková, Muzeum of Antonín Dvořák in Prague
Dvořák created this work at the end of the 19th century, during his stay in the United States, where he worked from 1892 to 1895 as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. His main inspiration for this piece was the American atmosphere of tempestuous development and hectic way of life, as well as the emotions that he experienced during his frequent visits to rural America.

And, as we have already mentioned, the composer’s sadness and nostalgic yearning for his home in faraway Bohemia are also present. Dvořák only worked on his most famous symphony for a relatively short amount of time – from January to May 1893.

What defines Dvořák’s New World Symphony more than anything is its synthetic structure consisting of various musical elements from indigenous and folk music. But it is nonetheless futile to try and find one greater, overlying metaphor or plot behind the composer’s work, even though we can see eclectic inspirations behind the symphony’s movements. We can, for instance, hear the rhythm of a telegraph message being written in the last movement. And yet, we cannot attribute everything that we interpret in this symphony to one specific thing that it resembles. The impressions and musical images conveyed by this piece are too ambiguous for that.

Defender of liberty and human solidarity

It is said that the main message of the New World Symphony is the hope for universal liberty and human solidarity. Dvořák, like many other Europeans, couldn’t comprehend slavery and the lingering racism found in the New World. Perhaps this feeling is also captured in the sounds of the symphony. Zdeněk Mahler, a prominent European art historian, used to tell a story about how an American was telling Dvořák about the superiority of the white race over all others, and how the composer replied to him loud and clear with the typical Czech retort: “Bullshit!”

The Best of Czech classical music series was created on the basis of Lukáš Hurník's and Bohuslav Vítek's project "Millenium hits" which was broadcast on Czech Radio Vltava.