On the title page of his 9th Symphony manuscript, Antonín Dvořák wrote „Z Nového světa“ „From the new world“; it’s thus become popularly known as the New World Symphony. And by “popularly” I mean really, right up there among the most-played classical works. I can pretty well guarantee that almost everyone will have heard, and remember, the big swooshy melody at the front of the 2nd movement.
The title is literally correct; it was composed in 1893 while Dvořák had a lucrative gig in New York as Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. He was fascinated by Afro-American and Native American music; I quote: “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”
About the 9th Symphony, he said “I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.”
Personally, I can’t hear any of that in the music; it sounds like pure Mittel-Europa to me, and very, very good. Here’s the thing about Dvořák; the music is basically all really good. His Requiem and Cello Concerto (also written in New York) are very dear to me.
I understand that most of you don’t have 45 minutes to listen to a whole symphony, so just listen to Movement #1, which has a big beginning and is full of great tunes, or #2, which has the famous “New World Symphony” melody that everyone knows. The question is, for those of you who still “buy” “albums”, the question is which. The one I have, by the Czech Philharmonic, is super, but not exactly easy to get. I’m going to recommend George Szell with the Cleveland; one time when I was in a high-end audio store, the sales guy used the first movement to impress me with what some big expensive speakers could do, and boy was I ever impressed.
Links · Spotify playlist. Movements 1 and 2 on Spotify; 1 and 2 on iTunes; 1 and 2 on Amazon. As for live performance how about the New York Philharmonic a couple of years back; they take it a little faster than most, but it works for me.