Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Symphony Guide on Dvořák’s New World Symphony

It's Tuesday so we continue our look at the ongoing (and soon to end) series in the Guardian on the 50 greatest symphonies. Today Tom Service takes a look at Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, "From the New World". I just listened to all of his symphonies a week or so ago and posted about them here. As you can see, doing so resulted in me downgradinDvořák somewhat from my previous, long-standing, high estimation. His first four symphonies are blaring monstrosities that gave me a headache. His later ones are charming and melodic lightweights. But let's have a look at Tom's article. Here is the heart of it:
With its community of themes that appear throughout the symphony (in one brilliant place in the finale, Dvořák seamlessly combines tunes from the slow movement, the scherzo third movement, and the finale), Dvořák extends principles that he knew from Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. But as well as the traditional ways of hearing Dvořák’s 9th – either as an American evocation or a late-romantic triumph of thematic cycles and integration – there are others, too. The music plays with memory, both in the way that melodies from the first movement, say, return in every successive movement, but also with a larger idea of reminiscence, nostalgia, and something darker. That slow movement(which starts with those surreal, sublime brass chords, music that returns with visionary power, in a completely different, dramatic context near the end of the finale) isn’t as simple as an unforgettable tune and a series of contrasting rustic episodes. For me, that music sounds more and more like a lament, a keening.
This is one of the better essays in the series as Tom sets out to correct the misimpressions about the source and nature of the inspiration for the melodies in the piece and gives a fairly accurate summation of it. Of course, Dvořák was just one of the first generation of nationalist symphony composers in the late-19th century to break with the stylistic traditions of the German and Austrian mainstream. I sometimes wonder if some of the great appeal of Dvořák, especially here in the New World, is not simply the titles attached to pieces like the "New World" Symphony and the "American" String Quartet. Perhaps he should also have written a "Manhattan" Quintet?

But the "New World" is a lovely piece and it has the kinds of tunes you can go away humming. Let's have a listen. This is Karajan and the Vienna Phillies:

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