On December 16, 1893, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s most celebrated and popular piece, the Symphony 9 – more commonly known as the New World Symphony – premiered in Carnegie Hall in New York City.
At the time a music professor at the Prague Conservatory in then Austria- Hungary, Dvorak was offered, by prominent patron of the arts Jeanette Meyer Thurber, the attractive post of director of the National Conservatory of Music, which had been founded a few years before in New York.
Dvorak in the New World
Accepting the lucrative offer, Dvorak moved to the United States in 1892. He wrote and composed his four-movement Ninth Symphony in a very short time from January to May 1893 while living and working in the Big Apple, with the piece widely seen as a reflection of the Bohemian composer’s thoughts and feelings of life in the United States.
Homesick and unaccustomed to the American urban way of life, Dvorak would eventually terminate his contract after a stay of approximately three years in New York. He returned to Prague in 1895, where he would continue to compose, including his renowned opera Rusalka, before his death less than ten years later in 1904.
Despite the struggles he faced during his three-year sojourn in New York, Dvorak’s American stay was highly productive, and gave birth to what is still widely considered his masterpiece: the Symphony 9 in E minor, “From the New World” (Z nového světa), got its world premiere at the Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic and under the baton of conductor Anton Seidl.
The premiere was a resounding success, one of the peaks in the composer’s career, with Dvorak almost forced to stand up and bow to the audience’s applause at the end of every movement.
“Greatest symphonic work ever composed” in the United States
The program of the evening also included the Violin Concerto of Brahms and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn.
“A noble composition […] of heroic proportions,” would comment a reporter for the New York Herald, while the New York Evening Post hailed “the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country.”
Ever since its world premiere and partly due to his activities as head of the National Conservatory of Music, Dvorak’s Symphony 9 sparked a debate on the rich influences the composer may have used as inspiration, including plantations songs of the American South, African American spirituals (like the famous “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), or legends from the Native American folklore.
“In the negro melodies of America, I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he was quoted as saying by the American press.
“Dvorak was […] quite invested in the professional and personal well-being of Black musicians, which really went against the grain, at the time,” explained Douglas W. Shadle, author of a book on the topic.
“It was sort of a double-edged sword, in that he clearly did not understand the depth of controversy that this type of arrangement would elicit, and so he again found himself embroiled in vigorous racist debates about the quality of Black musicians and that sort of thing.”
Dvorak and the renaissance of African American music
Among other initiatives, Dvorak started admitting Black students free of charge at the Conservatory in the fall of 1893, one year after taking charge of the institution. He’s also believed to have started working on plans to open an entire branch of the school dedicated to African American music, but left New York before bringing his project to fruition.
“Dvorak was very progressive in this regard, but with a certain naivete about the full philosophical repercussions behind it,” commented Professor Shade in an interview with Radio Prague, pointing to testimonies of some of his students and contemporaries gently accusing him of what would be described today as “cultural appropriation”.
The Ninth Symphony, however, remained “a touchstone piece for many different strands of intellectual and musical history in the United States afterwards,” he noted, including “for the intellectuals who would become part of the Harlem Renaissance.”
Widely considered as one of most performed pieces of classical music and most well-known compositions by Dvorak, the European premiere of the New World Symphony was held in London half a year later, in June 1894.
In a stellar testament to its popularity, US astronaut Neil Armstrong is said to have taken a tape recording of Dvorak’s piece during the historic Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.