Series: Places in music
“Begegnungen. People and Places” is the motto of Klosters Music 2024,
and musicologist Georg Rudiger introduces some of the places that are important for certain works performed in Klosters. It starts with Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” by Antonín Dvořák.
In June 1891, Antonín Dvořák received a telegram from America. The sender was Jeanette Thurber, president of the New York Conservatory of Music, which she had founded. She made the Czech composer a tempting offer. He could take up the post of director of the institute for a limited period of two years and would receive 15,000 dollars a year. It did not take Dvořák long to make his mind up, after all, he would earn 25 times his Prague professor’s salary in this post. He signed the contract in December 1891. The Czech, who was regarded as a distinctly national composer, was to give America a musical identity: “The Americans expect great things from me, above all I am to show them the way to the promised land and the realm of the new, independent art, in short, to create a national music!”, Dvořák reported in a letter. Arriving in New York with his family in autumn 1892, he immediately set to work. He had his black pupil, the baritone Harry Thacker Burleigh, sing spirituals and plantation songs from the southern states to him almost every day, while his friend and music critic Henry Eduard Krehbiel presented him with transcriptions of Native American melodies. He discovered concise rhythmic twists such as syncopation. He also made a note in his sketchbook of pentatonic scales, which do without semitones in the five notes. “I didn’t use any of those melodies. I simply wrote characteristic themes by infusing them with the characteristics of Native American music,” he explains in the New York Herald.
Traces of American history
From the very beginning, the Symphony “From the New World” develops a special tone. Syncopations can be heard in the very first bars of the slow introduction, which are accentuated in the fortissimo interjections of the strings; the main theme in the Allegro molto also presents two syncopations in a prominent position. These rhythmic features can be derived from the melodies of the spirituals, especially as the third theme, played by the flute in the lower register, bears a strong resemblance to the well-known “Swing low, sweet chariot”. The many pentatonic passages could also be modelled on Native American and African-American melodies. The calm English horn theme in the second movement is also composed pentatonically. Dvořák drew inspiration for this movement from Henry Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha”, which tells of the life of the 16th-century Native American Hiawatha. Here, too, the Czech composer found touching music for a musical place – and was celebrated by the American audience at the premiere on 16 December 1893 in New York.