Symphony No.9

Antonín Dvořák

Symphony No.9 in E minor

B178, Op. 95 • “From the New World”

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Dvorák composed this work in 1893; Anton Seidl conducted the premiere with the New York Philharmonic Society on December 16, 1893.

His most popular work from his time spent in America was the swan-song symphony he subtitled From the New World. Chauvinists among us still claim that its themes are either Amerindian or African-American, which Dvorák refuted in 1900: "Omit the nonsense about my having made use of 'American' motifs....I tried only to write in the spirit of those national melodies." This dust-up managed to ignore influences both stronger and more subtle. Dvorák already knew Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, completed in 1888, and he likewise used a motto-theme to link the four movements in his symphony in E minor. The introduction can be made to sound a lot more Tchaikovskian, indeed, than a subsequent theme can be made to sound like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," as alleged. Beyond the Slavic gravitas of both symphonies, however, Dvorák's musical signature was intrinsically Czech, even in the Largo movement that represented, he once said, Hiawatha at the grave site of Minnehaha (a quasi-Spiritual, "Goin' Home" text was created post facto by a white American pupil). By the time he heard any Amerind music, during the summer of 1893 near a Czech settlement at Spillville, Iowa, Dvorák had finished the Ninth Symphony. From the structural standpoint, two sonata-form movements (with an exposition repeat in the first) bracket two movements in song form (ABA), all of them with brief introductions and codas.

The 2/4 Allegro molto has an Adagio preface in 4/8 time. Horns introduce the motto theme, answered by clarinets and bassoons, then strings. Flutes and oboes play a melody in G minor before the "Swing Low" closing subject shifts from minor to G major. Sectional development omits the G minor tune; reprise and coda are distillations.

The Largo begins in D flat major, far from single sharped E minor. A plaintive English horn melody dominates both here and later on. In between a C sharp minor section marked Un poco più mosso, winds introduce two themes, more palpitant than the D flat section's big tune, before the motto makes a sinister appearance.

Song sections marked Scherzo: Molto vivace, in E minor, pay homage less to Indian pow-wows than to the scherzo movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A briefer subject in E major recalls the G major closing theme of the first movement, followed by the motto. The Poco sostenuto Trio is pure Czech, beginning in C major, with a G major second theme related to the Beethoven rhythm in sections A and A.

Allegro con fuoco is the marking of the final movement with a martial main theme in E minor for horns and trumpets. The clarinet counters with a nostalgic sub-theme, after which flutes and fiddles play a closing subject in G major. The development combines music from previous movements with the main theme of movement 4. Following the recap, a Grand Coda ends with a fortissimo restatement of the motto, then a diminuendo to pianissimo on the final chord.

Done