Antonin Dvorak spent several years in the 1890s in the United States, including a time in a community of Czech immigrants in, of all places, Spillville, Iowa. I once drove through Spillville, and it’s tiny — less than 500 people live there. And yet, one of the greatest composers of all time lived there one summer, and some of his experiences there played into the music he composed while living in our country.
Dvorak felt that American music at that time was mainly concerned with echoing the Germanic symphonic traditions, with little attention paid to what he considered the true folk music of America, namely the chants of the Native Americans and the spirituals of the African-American population. He attempted to capture some of the character of those melodies in his Ninth Symphony, but what he mainly did was create new melodies based on the pentatonic scale, which does tend to be common to many aboriginal cultures of the world. There is nothing specifically American in this symphony, despite its being called “From the New World”, and Dvorak himself would later insist that the symphony is a purely old-world work, composed in the old-world rhythm (particularly with regard to the use of Czech folk rhythms, something Dvorak would do his entire life), and more intended to convey the emotions Dvorak felt as a European seeing the great expanse of America for the first time.
None of that really matters, though — whether one hears America or Prague or some blend of the two in this work, Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony is one of the enduring works in all classical music, and with good reason. It is loaded with wonderful melodies (particularly that spellbinding second movement), to be sure, but it is also a superb work of musical craftsmanship as well, with every idea in its place and some of Dvorak’s finest orchestrations. Here is Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”.