A to Z: Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak is often cited as Czechoslovakia’s greatest composer. His music is melodic and emotional, without being overly cloying; his orchestrations are always marked by clarity and deftness. He’s not the most profound composer around, but I’ve never yet heard a piece of his that wasn’t rewarding in some way.

His most famous work is likely his Symphony No. 9, which is subtitled “From the New World”, because Dvorak composed it while living for a time in the United States, both in New York City and in a Czech community in Spillville, IA. (Spillville is not too far from Waverly, where I went to college, and I drove through it with my parents a time or two. It’s a lovely small town in the hilly country of Northeast Iowa.)

While the symphony was inspired and influenced by Dvorak’s time in America, it’s overstating things to say that its musical content springs from American music of the day. A lot of the melodies are pentatonic in nature, which is a fact common to many folk regions of the world, not just the Americas, and in any event, Dvorak’s orchestrations and developments of those melodies are purely in the Germanic symphonic tradition. So it’s not really a symphony of “American” music; it’s more of a musical gift to America from a very gifted Czech. And what a gift it is – the “New World” Symphony is one of the most purely pleasurable works to hear in the entire classical repertoire.

A personal story about this symphony: I heard it performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic years ago, under the baton of Semyon Bychkov. During the second movement – the gorgeous slow movement – for some reason the audience seemed to get a collective frog in its throat, and there followed the worst rash of coughing from the audience I have ever heard at a concert. It was astonishing, well and truly astonishing. But even more astonishing was when Maestro Bychkov, after completing that movement, laid down his baton, turned, and admonished the audience for all the coughing. It got a lot quieter in Kleinhans Music Hall after that…and after picking up his baton again, Bychkov added: “For those of you who missed the second movement the first time, we will now perform it again.”

I got Bychkov’s autograph after that concert. He was sitting on a couch smoking, but as soon as he saw me, he jumped up, asked around for a pen, and urged me to continue attending concerts and studying music. He struck me as a very warm and friendly man.

Here’s a fine live performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”. As you listen, you’ll hear hints of what’s called a ‘cyclical’ structure, when melodic material from previous movements is referenced. Also note that the trumpet players in this European orchestra seem to be holding their instruments on their sides. Those are rotary-valved trumpets, which are common in Europe. Same instrument (albeit with a slightly darker sound), just made slightly differently from the American piston-valved instruments. Anyway, enjoy!

(And by the way: anyone claiming that the opening bars of the fourth movement are obviously where John Williams stole his Jaws theme from will be beaten over the head with a stale baguette. I meanit, folks!)

Tomorrow: Drinking songs, classical-style!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A to Z: Dvorak

  1. Unknown says:

    Hello again. Yes, Dvorak's New World Symphony is great. One of my proudest moments is when I watched my daughter play lead clarinet for this symphony and played a solo, at the Royal Northern College of Music (Manchester, UK).


  2. Roger Owen Green says:

    One of my favorite symphonies, ever.

    Where DO you buy your stale bagels, anyway?

  3. Roger Owen Green says:

    Sorry, baguettes. Do you get them from France, so that by time of arrival, they are already rock hard?

Comments are closed.