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Dvorak's beloved 'New World' symphony was an anthem to what American music could be

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out what's great about a culture. That's exactly what Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was when he came to the U.S. At the end of the 19th century. He was an immigrant thrown into a new world and new sounds. And out of that experience, he wrote a symphony for America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISRAEL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN E MINOR, OP. 95 'FROM THE NEW WORLD' - 1. ADAGIO - ALLEGRO MOLTO")

DETROW: All this week to mark the Fourth of July holiday, we've been revisiting some of the songs that have become different sorts of American anthems. Today we dive into Dvorak's "New World Symphony." NPR's Tom Huizenga has the story, which first aired in 2018.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: When Antonin Dvorak came to the U.S. in 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance was new. So was Carnegie Hall, the game of basketball and Edison's wax cylinders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISSLER'S ORCHESTRA'S "FIFTH REGIMENT MARCH")

HUIZENGA: Classical music in America wasn't new, but it needed a reboot, and Dvorak was the man to do it. Already a celebrated composer in Europe, Dvorak was hired to run a national conservatory in New York to help American composers find their own voice and shake off the European sound. At the time, American concert music sounded an awful lot like Brahms and Beethoven. Dvorak heard something different in an unexpected place, as he told the New York Herald just before he debuted his "New World Symphony."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.

HUIZENGA: The Negro melodies - that's a reading of Dvorak telling white Americans the future of their music resides in the people they subjugated and killed.

JOANN FALLETTA: It was radical, and I think that he got harshly criticized and really rejected.

HUIZENGA: JoAnn Falletta is the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. She's conducted Dvorak's "New World Symphony" many times.

FALLETTA: Dvorak was surprised, in a way, to find that the roots of American music were not European. They were African American.

HUIZENGA: Including spirituals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT")

FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Swing low, sweet chariot, coming forth to carry me home.

HUIZENGA: Dvorak may have even heard the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who were popular at the time. But Joe Horowitz, author of the book "Classical Music In America," says Dvorak's real connection to African American spirituals was a young Black man named Harry Burleigh. He had applied to be a student at Dvorak's National Conservatory.

JOE HOROWITZ: Dvorak chose a Black person to be his assistant. How likely is that?

HUIZENGA: Remember; this is America in the 1890s.

HOROWITZ: So put yourself in Dvorak's head. He's probably thinking at least two things - I want to help this young Black man, and this young Black man is going to help me.

HUIZENGA: Harry Burleigh was a self-taught baritone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO DOWN MOSES")

HARRY BURLEIGH: (Singing) Thus said the Lord, bold Moses said, let my people go.

HUIZENGA: Burleigh sang spirituals to Dvorak, like "Go Down Moses," which the composer said had a melody to rival Beethoven. Horowitz says Burleigh also sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to Dvorak.

HOROWITZ: And Burleigh claimed that Dvorak was actually quoting "Swing Low."

HUIZENGA: In the opening movement of the "New World Symphony," says Horowitz, who's at the piano to demonstrate. First, the melody of "Swing Low."

HOROWITZ: (Playing piano).

HUIZENGA: Now listen to how Dvorak's melody flows out of that.

HOROWITZ: (Playing piano).

(SOUNDBITE OF BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 'FROM THE NEW WORLD' OP. 95: I. ADAGIO - ALLEGRO MOLTO")

HUIZENGA: Dvorak, the outsider immigrant, could see something American composers were blind to. There was a rich tradition to draw on right in front of their noses, and Dvorak showed them how to do it. He wove American roots music into his vast symphonic canvas. And, inspired by Black spirituals, he came up with a melody that would become a spiritual on its own - the largo, the symphony's second movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON PHILHARMONIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN E MINOR, OP. 95, 'FROM THE NEW WORLD': LARGO")

HOROWITZ: After Dvorak died, it was turned into "Goin' Home" by William Arms Fisher. And most people who know "Goin' Home" assume that it's a spiritual that Dvorak quoted.

HUIZENGA: But it wasn't. Joe Horowitz says William Arms Fisher was a white student of Dvorak who added words to the composer's melody, which went from the concert hall to church hymn books.

KEVIN DEAS: My family all thought it was a spiritual.

HUIZENGA: Bass baritone Kevin Deas first heard "Goin' Home" as a kid when he didn't realize the music was by Dvorak.

DEAS: We had "Goin' Home" in our hymnals that I grew up singing. And so I was familiar with the melody, but there was just this instant sense of, I could identify with this music.

HUIZENGA: So Deas recorded it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOIN' HOME")

DEAS: (Singing) Mother's there expecting me. Father's waiting, too.

It has that sense of longing. And so much of the African American spiritual tradition comes with this idea that heaven or home is a beautiful place to go to.

HUIZENGA: Dvorak's largo became not just an anthem for the weary but also a hymn for those who've died. It was performed at memorial events for Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gerald Ford. Spirituals - they inspired Dvorak, and in turn, he created one that inspired Black composers and musicians, including pianist Art Tatum, who made the largo swing back in 1949.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART TATUM'S "GOIN' HOME")

HUIZENGA: Dvorak had a dream that American composers would follow his example - cultivate their own musical soil to grow distinctly American anthems of their own.

HOROWITZ: We blew it.

HUIZENGA: Author Joe Horowitz.

HOROWITZ: We never fulfilled Dvorak's prophecy. We squandered it.

HUIZENGA: It was popular music that soaked up the African American influences, which is great, Horowitz adds. Still, JoAnn Falletta says some did hear the call of Dvorak's New World anthem.

FALLETTA: He made American composers think about music differently. And the entire history of 20th century American music changed because of Antonin Dvorak. And maybe his prediction then gave composers like Gershwin the feeling that using jazz and writing for a classical orchestra was OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN'S "RHAPSODY IN BLUE")

HUIZENGA: George Gershwin looked to jazz. And Aaron Copland would look to American folk music. But before any of them was Antonin Dvorak. And before the birth of jazz, R&B and hip-hop, this old white European predicted that the future of music in America will be Black. And he was right.

FALLETTA: Yes. I think what's happened is that the roots of American music, whether it be African American or Native American or ragtime or Louisiana bayou music, all of that has now become accepted as a rich part of our fabric, of our musical life.

HUIZENGA: And that musical melting pot is what Antonin Dvorak celebrated and even elevated in his "New World Symphony," a philosophy of inclusion rendered in music. Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER AND RAFAEL KUBELIK PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S "SCHERZO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.