Antonín Dvořák´s Symphony No.9, e-minor, op.95, named "From The New World" ("Novosvětská symfonie" in Czech) is certainly the composer´s supreme symphonic work, and it also ranks among the supreme symphonies of all times. Dvořák worked on it from early 1893 to May 24 of the same year, in the first year of his stay in America. The circumstances under which it was composed also determined its character and purpose. The special atmosphere of American folk music is unmistakeable to the symphony, although Dvořák made no direct use of Indian or other songs. What, then, can one actually hear in that symphony?
More than anythong else, one should note its synthetic character. That synthesis is certainly not limited to American elements, motifs or intonations, nor to Czech ones, nor – to adept a new angle – elements which can be attributed to Dvořák´s impressions of America and his nostagia for his distant homeland; the synthesis can also be said to embrace Dvořák´s entire experience in the symphony filed, the essentials of his approach, even the principles of the so-called absolute and programme music. It would be a futile exercise, of course, to try to construe that programme as a continuous epic plot, despite the temptation to see the inspiration for the two middle movements in Longfellow´s poem „The Song of Hiawatha“, certainly an object of Dvořák´s avid interest. However, neither the Scherzo, believed sometimes to picture the dances at Hiawatha´s wedding, nor the Largo, which more than ona analyst has described as a „burial in the forest“, can be said to reflect any screen from the poem; indeed, the whole structure and development of the work (of definitely Czech colouring in the Scherzo´s Trio) would seem to deny any such impressions. Here, like in the opening and final movements, the composer merely exploits the impressions of the New World which he has found fascinating – and there was much to be fascinated with: the new character of America´s life, its exuberant civiliyation, its wildly beautiful – but also, as Dvořák says in his letters, unpeopled – nature, and the Americans´ ostentatious self-assurance and democratic attitudes.
All that can be heard in the symphony, and one could even match the various impressions and stimull with corresponding themes and musical images, albeit at the risk of over-simplification, since none of the themes is unequivocal, and all of them are transformed in the variations and in conflict with other themes. To be sure, the introduction to the „New World“ gives a feeling of alienation, but the first subject – a kind of „leading motive“ of the whole symphony – enters immediately with a self-assured fanfare, to progress to a definitely Czech colouring in increasingly numerous shades. The second and final subjects reveal obvious imagery of the black slaves´ struggle for freedom, which Dvořák discovered in the the Negro spirituals. Largo, with its elegiac colouring, also owes much to the Negro spirituals, until the variations to the middle section finally succumb to a burst of rebelious vigour. The driving dance-like Scherzo, with markedly Czech Trio, carries the symphony to the even wilder of the final movement, in which someone has even alleged to hear the click of telegraph messages. Without describing to such over-simplification, we can let Dvořák communicate hid impressions of America, whose chaotic and multifaced character he found overwhelming. He emphasizes that image of America by „thematic nodes“, in which duistant subject from different movements are interwined. Moreover, Dvořák reflects here his nostalgia for his homeland, as well as comparison and relationships between his old and new domicile. The supreme relationship is the voice of the people and the struggle for universal freedom and brotherhood of men.
This article is the translation of my own article in Czech Wikipedia.