Conducted by Sergiu Celibidache, the Münchner Philharmoniker (Munich Philharmonic Orchestra) performs Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, Op. 95, B. 178. Recorded in 1991.
Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”
Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” is one of the most popular and frequently performed symphonic works in the repertoire. It was composed in 1893 during Dvořák’s tenure in the United States as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. The symphony, often referred to simply as the “New World Symphony,” is notable for its fusion of European symphonic tradition with American musical elements, inspired by Dvořák’s experiences and observations in the U.S.
The symphony is sometimes described as Dvořák’s reflection on his experiences in the New World. While he didn’t directly quote Native American or African American spirituals, Dvořák was profoundly influenced by the spirit and rhythm of American folk music. For example, the famous English horn melody in the symphony is reminiscent of spirituals and American folk tunes, though it’s an original theme by Dvořák.
The title “From the New World” signifies both the composer’s journey to America and his exploration of the musical landscape of the country. Throughout the work, Dvořák crafts a dynamic musical narrative, from sweeping and majestic passages to delicate, introspective moments, all of which seem to capture the vastness, diversity, and promise of the American continent.
Despite its associations with American music, the symphony also remains deeply rooted in Dvořák’s Czech heritage. It’s a fusion of the two worlds – the familiar European traditions and the exciting discoveries of America – that makes this work so intriguing.
The “New World Symphony” has enjoyed enduring popularity since its premiere, not just for its memorable melodies but also for its depth and complexity. It’s seen as an embodiment of the universality of music, transcending geographical and cultural boundaries.
- Adagio, 4/8 – Allegro molto, 2/4, E minor
- Largo, common time, D-flat major, then later C-sharp minor
- Scherzo: Molto vivace – Poco sostenuto, 3/4, E minor
- Finale: Allegro con fuoco, common time, E minor, ends in E major on a Picardy third over an altered form of the plagal cadence
1. Adagio – Allegro molto
The first movement of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, is marked “Adagio – Allegro molto”. It sets the tone for the entire symphony and is filled with powerful contrasts and memorable themes.
The movement begins with a slow, ominous introduction (Adagio) that soon gives way to the main section of the movement (Allegro molto). The primary theme, which emerges after the introduction, is bold and energetic, presented in the strings. This theme is lively and rhythmic and has a character that suggests both European classical structure and the vigor of American folk music.
The contrasting secondary theme is more lyrical, providing a nice balance to the boldness of the primary theme. Throughout the movement, Dvořák employs his rich orchestrational skills, using different instruments and sections of the orchestra to provide color, depth, and variety.
One of the notable characteristics of this movement is its dynamic range and the sense of journey it offers. The music transitions between moments of exuberance and introspection, from stormy passages to calmer, more melodic sections.
The structure of the first movement is in a modified sonata form, a common structure used in first movements of symphonies. This means the movement presents themes, develops them, and then recapitulates or returns to them. Dvořák’s innovative treatment of these themes, along with his unique blending of Czech and American elements, makes this movement a compelling start to the symphony.
The second movement of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, is perhaps the most famous of all the movements, and it’s marked “Largo”. It’s characterized by its evocative and soulful melodies, as well as its serene and contemplative nature.
The highlight of this movement is the beautiful and haunting melody played by the English horn. This melody has often been associated with the vast American landscape and has sometimes been mistakenly thought of as a traditional Native American or African American tune. However, it is an original theme by Dvořák, even though its style is clearly influenced by the spirit of American folk songs and spirituals. This theme has left such an indelible mark on listeners that it has been adapted into various other formats, including the song “Goin’ Home”.
The orchestration of the Largo is rich and varied, providing a warm and lush soundscape. The strings often offer a shimmering background over which the woodwinds and brass present their melodies and counter-melodies. The movement has a rhapsodic quality, with the central theme returning in various guises, interwoven with other contrasting themes.
Emotionally, the Largo conveys a sense of yearning, nostalgia, and deep introspection. Some interpretations suggest that Dvořák might have been expressing his own feelings of homesickness for his native Bohemia while being in the United States.
The third movement of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” is marked “Scherzo: Molto vivace”. As with traditional symphonies, this movement provides a lighter, dance-like contrast to the surrounding movements.
The term “Scherzo” traditionally refers to a lively, brisk movement, often in a triple meter, and Dvořák’s Scherzo in the “New World Symphony” certainly lives up to this definition. The movement is infused with energy and rhythmic vitality, echoing the spirit of both European dances and, possibly, the lively rhythms of American folk music.
The main theme of the Scherzo is introduced right at the outset and is characterized by its buoyant and syncopated rhythm. This theme undergoes various transformations and is presented in different orchestrations throughout the movement.
Following the Scherzo section, there’s a contrasting “Trio” section, as is customary in scherzo movements. Dvořák’s trio here is more lyrical and flowing, offering a gentle contrast to the rhythmic energy of the Scherzo. This section has a charm and grace that might remind one of Czech folk dances or songs.
After the Trio section concludes, the Scherzo theme returns, culminating in a spirited conclusion to the movement.
4. Allegro con fuoco
The finale of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” is marked “Allegro con fuoco,” which means “with fire.” This movement is a dynamic and rousing conclusion to the symphony, brimming with energy and drama.
Right from the beginning, the movement seizes the listener’s attention with a forceful and rhythmic theme in the strings. This theme is both assertive and captivating, embodying the vigor and boldness that characterizes much of the symphony.
Throughout the movement, Dvořák uses a variety of thematic materials, some of which recall motifs from earlier movements, creating a sense of unity and cyclical structure in the symphony. This blending of themes not only ties the entire symphony together but also showcases Dvořák’s brilliance in thematic development and transformation.
One of the standout qualities of this movement is its vivid orchestration. Dvořák uses the full palette of the orchestra, creating moments of intense drama, sweeping lyricism, and everything in between. The intricate interplay between the instruments, combined with the rhythmic drive of the movement, keeps the listener engaged from start to finish.
The movement builds in intensity, with various themes being revisited and developed, leading to a triumphant and resounding conclusion. This climactic ending provides a fitting close to a symphony that traverses a vast emotional and musical landscape.
Sergiu Celibidache (11 July [O.S. 28 June] 1912 – 14 August 1996) was a Romanian conductor, composer, and teacher. Educated in his native Romania, and later in Paris and Berlin, Celibidache’s career in music spanned over five decades, including tenures as principal conductor for the Munich Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and several European orchestras. Later in life, he taught at Mainz University in Germany and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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