Michael Beckerman of New York University gave the Music Department’s annual Peter Grant Swing Lecture on the subject of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” which the college orchestra will perform tonight. Beckerman traced the myriad and complex sources for the symphony’s themes and its larger philosophical inspirations, arguing that no composer has as fully ingested and artistically confronted another culture the way Dvorak did when he came to the United States.
Beckerman began by giving some historical background. Dvorak had been invited to run the National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1892. Its founder and guiding spirit, Jeanette Thurber, sought a celebrity head for her school who she thought could jump-start an American tradition of composition in a uniquely national style. She felt that Dvorak, one of the creators of the Czech national music movement, would be an ideal choice.
While in New York, Dvorak sought to write a symphony that could inspire American composers to create their own national art music idiom. In writing the Symphony No. 9, he sought to replace the “Czechisms” in his music with “Americanisms,” though he claimed that he did not borrow any material directly, merely using folk music for inspiration.
Beckerman forcefully argued that Dvorak did fact borrow themes for his symphony, and borrow a great number of them. Stuck in New York, most of his encounters with folk music were through books, friends, or other second-hand sources. One of the most prominent examples of this was an article about black folk music, which contained several songs that would make it into the symphony in barely altered form, including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which is played by the flute in the first movement of the symphony.
Beckerman also argued that the symphony, like much of Dvorak’s late work, is deeply programmatic, meaning that it tells an extra-musical story. The central text that the symphony refers to is Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” which Dvorak knew in a Czech translation. Dvorak referred to the connection somewhat elliptically, but Beckermann explored its potential much more thoroughly, tying a passage in the famous largo movement to a particular passage of the poem’s book 21 involving some birds, and other sections to a funeral.
Musically, the connections were fairly clear. Some of the material was borrowed from Dvorak’s own never-completed opera version of “Hiawatha,” and other motives were drawn from a book of birdsongs that Beckerman found had been in Dvorak’s possession. Not the most adventurous of readers, he picked the first two notated in the book. In one striking demonstration, he read another passage of the poem over part of the trio section of the scherzo, showing how well the words fit with the music.
Dvorak finished the symphony by March or April 1893, still in New York. Though he had done his best to capture the American spirit, he had done so mostly out of books. During the summer of 1893, he traveled to Spillville, Iowa, to visit a community of Czech emigrants. There, he finally saw the prairies he had already written about and, Beckerman said, went on to write more the popular “American” string quartet with “another vision of America, more firmly and genuinely grounded” in American nature.
But the New World Symphony remains a masterwork of late 19th century nationalist Romanticism, Beckerman said, one that also serves as a palimpsest of Dvorak’s discovery of American culture.
The Swarthmore College Orchestra, directed by John Alston, will perform Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” along with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter,” tonight at 8:00 p.m. in Lang Concert Hall.