Saturday, November 24, 2018

John Malveaux: 'New World' Symphony Introduced American Music To Itself

                 U.S. Navy CPO Graham Jackson, with tears of grief, plays "Goin' Home," from Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's body is carried from Warm Springs, Ga., where he died.
Ed Clark/Life Picture Collection/Getty

John Malveaux of 

A foreigner discovered the Negro Spiritual as a basis for authentic American classical music.


National Public Radio 

Deceptive Cadence

November 24, 2018 8:02 AM ET

Tom Huizenga

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at

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, an immigrant thrown into a new world and new sounds.

Out of that experience, he wrote a symphony for America: Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, subtitled "From the New World," has become one of the world's most beloved orchestral works. It also produced a melody that is a hymn and an anthem to what American music can be.

When Dvorak came to America in 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance was new. So were Carnegie Hall, the game of basketball and Edison's wax cylinders. Classical music in America wasn't new — but it needed a reboot. Already a celebrated composer in Europe, Dvorak was hired to run the National Conservatory of Music in New York to help American composers find their own voices and shake off the European sound.   

At the time, American concert music sounded a 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.

"The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies," he declared. "This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States." Essentially, this was Dvorak telling white Americans that the future of their music resided in the people they had subjugated and killed.

"It was radical, and I think that he got harshly criticized and really rejected," says JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, who has conducted the "New World" Symphony many times. "Dvorak was surprised, in a way, to find that the roots of American music were not European, they were African-American."

The music he found here included African-American spirituals, introduced to him by a young black man named Harry Burleigh, who had applied to be a student at Dvorak's National Conservatory.

"Dvorak chose a black person to be his assistant. How likely is that?" says Joe Horowitz, author of the book Classical Music in America, noting that this was, after all, America in the 1890s. "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.' "       

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