Dvorak Symphony No. 9 Concerto Program Notes
The oldest of eight children, Antonín Dvořák was born in a tiny town on the Vlatava (the Moldau) 22 miles North of Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, but which in 1841 was in the Kingdom of Bohemia, a constituent part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (It was almost completely encircled by Austria.) The official language was German, and Dvořák, along with his compatriot Bedřich Smetana (sixteen years older, and the composer of “Ma Vlast,” or “My Country” withits famous “Moldau” tone poem) would create a recognizably nationalist Czech school of music, using Czech in their titles and opera libretti, instead of the more common Italian or German.Aged 40, and settling in as professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory, Dvořák began receiving invitations to come to America, from Jeanette Thurber, wife of a grocery millionaire, musical philanthropist of an American Opera Company, a Boston Symphony tour to New York, and a musician in her own right -probably a classmate of Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire, in fact. Thurber’s offer of $15,000 (over $400,000 in today’s money) proved persuasive (at least for Mrs. Dvořák and the rest of the family), so six first-class steamer tickets were dispatched and Dvořák spent three years in New York, as head of the National Conservatory of Music of America that Jeanette Thurber had founded. It offered scholarships to the most talented students -including women and minorities, which was sadly unusual at the time.Dvořák’s impact on American music was a strong one, touching the lives, careers and training of most of America’s young composers. America’s impact on Dvořák was quite strong, too. As well as composing the Cello Concerto in the USA, the “American” String Quartet, and some of hispiano Humoresques. While a preoccupation of Dvořák’s was an American opera on the Native American life imagined in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha, the opera never came to fruition.However, his Ninth Symphony, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered at Carnegie Hall in December 1893, received his title “From the New World.” Going further, he described the two central movements as studies from the opera -the slow movement some kind of pastoral (with the immortalmelody in the English horn), and the scherzo “a feast in Hiawatha, where the Indians dance.” It’s not culturally sensitive, nor could it be.