≈ 2 hours 10 minutes · With intermission
Last updated: June 6, 2023
I. Allegro con brio
III. Rondo: Allegro
I. Adagio – Allegro molto
III. Scherzo: Molto vivace
IV. Allegro con fuoco
I. Adagio – Allegro molto
III. Scherzo: Molto vivace
IV. Allegro con fuoco
After the second movement, storms of applause resounded from all sides. Everyone present turned to look in the direction in which the conductor, Anton Seidl, was looking. At last, a sturdily-built man of medium height, straight as a fir tree from the forest whose music he so splendidly interprets, was discovered by the audience. From all over the hall there are cries of “Dvořák! Dvořák!” And while the composer is bowing, we have the opportunity to observe this poet of tone who is able to move the heart of so great an audience. […] Dr. Dvořák, hands trembling with emotion, indicates his thanks with Mr. Seidl, the orchestra and the audience, whereupon he disappears into the background while the Symphony continues.
So described the New York Herald’s critic of what occurred at the premiere of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, performed by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, on December 15, 1893. Based on this report, the piece appeared to be an unequivocal success, but this was not remotely the full picture. Even the work’s popularity today—it’s been regularly performed by orchestras around the world since the early 20th century—conceals a history and legacy that’s more complicated and uncomfortable, as musicologist Douglas Shadle incisively revealed in his recent historical study of the piece. As Jim Crow laws took hold in the late 19th century, the composition, performance, and initial reception of this symphony brought to a head many divisive issues regarding musical nationalism, aesthetics, and racial politics, the effects of which still resonate throughout American classical music culture today.
The “New World” Symphony was the first of several works Dvořák completed after he came to New York in 1892 to be artistic director and professor of composition at the National Conservatory of Music. The institution’s president, Jeannette Thurber, had invited him, believing that the Czech composer, then at the peak of his fame, could help guide the creation of an American “national” style of art music. As he considered what this could be, Dvořák learned about African American spirituals from one of the Conservatory’s Black students, Henry Thacker Burleigh, and was also given transcriptions of Indigenous melodies from the critic Henry Krehbiel. Eventually, he arrived at what he thought was the way forward. In a New York Herald interview published in May 1893, the composer declared that the music of the African diaspora “must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”
Dvořák’s statement, appearing months before the symphony’s premiere, proved to be explosive, as many white critics and composers offered a wide gamut of responses, much of it revealing deeply racist attitudes. While a few agreed with him, some felt that diasporic African melodies were too trivial a music to warrant “elevation” to (European) art music; several declared that such music was not even genuinely American to begin with, while others said that “the best” of these melodies were written by white men like Stephen Foster. It did not occur to them that Black musicians and composers at the time might have their own perspectives to contribute to the conversation.
When Dvořák arrived in the States, Thurber gave him a copy of Henry Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, hoping he would first write an opera. But he wrote a four-movement symphony instead, which was perhaps more significant, given that late-19th century critics regarded it as the most prestigious type of orchestral composition, and despite its Germanic origins, upheld it as a mode of universal expression. Structurally, the “New World” Symphony unfolds conventionally, with fast outer movements (the first opens with a slow introduction) framing a slow movement and a scherzo and trio, both of which Dvořák noted were influenced by Longfellow’s poem (the latter depicting Hiawatha’s wedding feast). For the symphony’s thematic material, just as he drew on the shape, colour, and “spirit” of Czech folk music to create original tunes for his earlier works, the composer similarly saw diasporic African music as raw material for his inspiration and manipulation. (Dvořák did not regard his appropriation as problematic, being ignorant, as Shadle has said, of “th[is] music’s historical and emotional ties to Black bodies.”) In line with the venerated principle of thematic unity, musical motifs from the Allegro molto return in later movements, such as its first and closing themes appearing simultaneously at the second movement’s climax, with the Largo’s own haunting main melody; the scherzo also features reminiscences of the same themes; and in the finale, melodies from the first and second movements reappear in the coda, with the symphony closing on a blazing statement of the Allegro molto’s first theme.
A question lingers: Does the “New World” Symphony sound American? Some critics in Dvořák’s day were unconvinced, asserting that what the composer wrote sounded more Slavic or even Irish, comparisons not entirely devoid of racist sentiment in 19th-century America. Thus, as we today might continue to feel drawn to this work’s power, we must also grapple with the historical complexities of its creation and the legacy of its performance.
Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD
Since its debut in 1969, the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra has been praised for the passion and clarity of its performances, its visionary educational programs, and its prominent role in nurturing Canadian creativity. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra reflects the fabric and values of Canada, reaching and representing the diverse communities we live in with daring programming, powerful storytelling, inspiring artistry, and innovative partnerships.
Alexander Shelley began his tenure as Music Director in 2015, following Pinchas Zukerman’s 16 seasons at the helm. Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra (2009–2017), he has been in demand around the world, conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Stockholm Philharmonic, among others, and maintains a regular relationship with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and the German National Youth Orchestra.
Each season, the NAC Orchestra features world-class artists such as the newly appointed Artist-in-Residence James Ehnes, Angela Hewitt, Joshua Bell, Xian Zhang, Gabriela Montero, Stewart Goodyear, Jan Lisiecki, and Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds. As one of the most accessible, inclusive, and collaborative orchestras in the world, the NAC Orchestra uses music as a universal language to communicate the deepest of human emotions and connect people through shared experiences.
**Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
Mintje van Lier (principal)
Winston Webber (assistant principal)
*Andréa Armijo Fortin
Jethro Marks (principal)
David Marks (associate principal)
David Goldblatt (assistant principal)
Rachel Mercer (principal)
**Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
Max Cardilli (assistant principal)
Joanna G'froerer (principal)
Charles Hamann (principal)
Kimball Sykes (principal)
Darren Hicks (principal)
Lawrence Vine (principal)
Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
Karen Donnelly (principal)
Steven van Gulik
*Steve Dyer (guest principal)
Chris Lee (principal)
*Michael Kemp (guest principal)
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