Dvořák: Symphony No. 9
From the New World
Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World (or just the New World Symphony for short), is undoubtedly one of the dozen or so most popular symphonies in the entire repertory, and has been so ever since it was first performed in New York on December 16, 1893. This was just one of many compositions Dvořák wrote during his sojourn in America, which lasted from 1892 to 1895. Speaking of new worlds, it is interesting to note that Neil Armstrong took along a recording of this symphony when he flew in the Apollo 11 space mission in 1969 and became the first man to set foot on the moon.
One “New World” aspect of this symphony is the role played by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, which Dvořák had read in Czech translation some thirty years earlier. He re-read the poem in America and claimed that the scene of Minnehaha’s funeral in the forest inspired the Largo movement of his symphony, while the Indians’ Dance was responsible for the Scherzo. Dvořák actually visited the regions where Hiawatha lived, Iowa and southern Minnesota.
The second movement (Largo) contains one of the most famous themes in all classical music. Many listeners know it as the song “Goin’ home” but Dvořák did not borrow the theme from a spiritual; it is his own, and the words were superimposed by one of his students after the symphony was already written. While you follow the music, play it on a flute, a recorder or an Orff instrument. Pay special attention to the rhythm: give the second beat (the third note) its full value. (Grades 9 and 10)
Dvořák wrote this theme for the English horn (a woodwind instrument – not a horn!), whose uniquely beautiful and sonorous timbre is heard here to its best advantage. Listen to the entire Largo movement in its entirety and observe each time the theme returns. Are the accompanying instruments always the same? (All levels)
Listen to either the Largo movement or the third movement (Scherzo) and try to imagine a scene from Longfellow’s poem. Using both Dvořák and Longfellow as inspiration, write a short poem of your own. You can find Longfellow’s original poem complete at www.theotherpages.org/poems/hiawatha.html . (Grades 11 and 12)