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New World from Old Beginnings

On December 16, 1893, the Philharmonic Society of New York gave the world premiere performance of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World" at the famous Carnegie Hall.

The piece - better known in the modern day and age as the New World Symphony - was described musically as "one of the most beautiful works produced since the death of Beethoven." The most memorable melody of the piece is the one played by the cor anglais, a reflective and beautiful tune that seems to reach to the heart of its listeners. It embodies hope, suffering and quiet reflection in anticipation of what is to come. In other words, it points to a new world.

Unfortunately for Dvorak, the reviews of his work were minimal in length in their commentary on its artistic merits compared to the opinions about the political choices made by its composer. In his Times review of the New World Symphony, critic W.J. Henderson devoted less than a tenth of his 3000-word article to the music itself. But why were critics so het up about the New World Symphony?

When Antonin Dvorak took up the post of director of the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City in 1892, he was charged by the Conservatory's benefactress, Jeannette Thurber, with the task of showing America "the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art - in short, to create a national music."

From the late 1880s, nationalistic fervour had been rising in various countries and each was seeking to create a national sound. America was not different in that respect. But in fulfilling the brief of composing a uniquely American sound, much to the consternation of some critics, Dvorak would find the inspiration in a folk tradition that many white Americans regarded as "primitive" instead of drawing on music from the European tradition.

Dvorak defended his artistic choices, informing the New York Herald in May 1893, "In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."

It was perhaps too wide a brief to expect Dvorak to summarise in one work the sound of a culture that had so many influences. And what is an American sound? Is it found in the "Rodeo" music of Aaron Copland? Or the musicals of Leonard Bernstein? Or spirituals? Even an amalgamation of these sounds might prove unsatisfactory to some.

Prior to America, Dvorak was a well-travelled man and - like George Frideric Handel - had visited London in 1884, composing the dramatic cantata The Spectre's Bride for the Birmingham Festival, and the oratorio St Ludmila for the Leeds Festival. He received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University and after America he returned to his native Prague until his death. His father had been the village butcher in Nelahozeves and had wanted his son to follow the family trade, but young Antonin's skill at the violin took him down a vastly different musical route.

One of Dvorak's most famous piano works are the Slavonic Dances for piano duet. They were commissioned in 1877 by the publisher Simrock on the recommendation of Johannes Brahms. The sheet music for the eight dances sold out in one day!

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