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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National
Richard Taruskin
A Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-3a Anton Bruckner, Symphony no. 7, I, mm. 1–5

A Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-3b Anton Bruckner, Symphony no. 7, IV mm. 1–2

Unsurprisingly, “cyclic” form (as it came to be called in the case of multimovement works) is most prevalent and systematically applied in the work of composers whose output contained both symphonies and symphonic poems or even operas, a versatility as unthinkable for a Liszt as it was for a Brahms. Brahms's own single-movement symphonic pieces, both composed in 1880, retained the old-fashioned designation “overture” and like Beethoven's overtures adhered to standard “first movement” form. While sporting “characteristic” titles—“Academic Festival” (composed on the themes of student songs as a thank-you for his Breslau degree) and “Tragic”—they were neither overtly programmatic nor conceived as narratives.

Far less fastidious about such distinctions was Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), often regarded as a Brahms protégé. His first big break came in 1874 when, as a country-born Bohemian provincial working as an orchestral violist and church organist (and who unlike his older countryman Smetana spoke Czech as his native language), Dvořák submitted several of his compositions to a committee that included Hanslick in hopes of winning a stipend from the Austrian government. He won not only that year but in 1876 and 1877 as well, when Brahms had joined the committee, and through the good offices of Hanslick and Brahms found a publisher.

A Bohemian Prescription for America

fig. 14-2a Antonín Dvořák, painting (1893) by A. Studnikow, after a portrait photo ca. 1879.

His first publications were of popular “national” fare, the exotic route being the easiest way for a young composer from the non-German provinces to promote himself. It is, however, a fair measure of the double standard that informs a lot of musical historiography to note that these early publications of Dvořák's—two books of “Moravian Duets” for mixed voices and piano, and a book of “Slavonic Dances” for piano four-hands—typecast him as a nationalist in a way that Brahms's almost exactly analogous early publications—the Liebeslieder-Walzer and the “Hungarian Dances”—did not.

Moreover, while no one ever thought of Brahms's Hungarian Dances as the expression of the composer's essential personality (because he was not a Hungarian), the opposite assumption was made in the case of Dvořák—even though, as scholars have demonstrated many times over, he did not use authentic melodies even when he could have, and the “Czech” style he presented to the world at large was altogether unlike the Czech style that Czechs recognize as Czech. To revive some terminology first applied to Chopin in chapter 7, Dvořák's early nationalism was almost entirely an opportunistic “tourist nationalism.” Nevertheless, he found himself trapped in it at times, as if in a ghetto. It led inevitably to biased expectations and, in some cases, to invidious reviews when he failed to conform to German (or French, or American) listeners’ ideas of properly Czech behavior.

A Bohemian Prescription for America

fig. 14-2b Dvořák's house in New York City, during his time as director of the National Conservatory, 1892–1895.

Meanwhile, despite his location in Prague (not exactly a small town, but provincial in Viennese eyes), Dvořák was a musician of wide and eclectic background. As a teenager he had played in the Prague conservatory orchestra when it needed to be augmented for big works like Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and he began his musical career a fervent Wagnerian. (In 1863 he played under Wagner himself in a concert that, among other things, introduced the preludes to Tristan and Die Meistersinger to Prague.) By 1871, his thirtieth year, he had two operas of his own to his credit.

The first, Alfred, was a grand historical opera in German that portrayed Anglo-Saxon resistance to the conquering Danes in the ninth century. The second, The King and the Charcoal Burner, was a comedy in Czech to a libretto reminiscent of Albert Lortzing's Zar und Zimmermann (“The Tsar and the carpenter,” 1837), a folksy singspiel about mistaken identity and benevolent friendship across class lines that was very popular all over Europe. Dvořák's opera was no folksy singspiel, however; it was so full of Wagnerian adventurousness and ambition that it had to be sent back for radical surgery by the Prague Provisional Theater, the Czech-language house to which he had submitted it. (The simplified version was performed in the same year that Dvořák won his stipend.) Clearly, the composer of these works was no “Brahmin”; but neither was he a down-on-the-farm “nationalist.”

Very much in contrast to such pigeonholes, Dvořák was arguably the most versatile (“universal”?) composer of his time. His output eventually included eight more operas, including one (Dmitrij, 1882; revised 1894–95) that updated the plot of Musorgsky's Boris Godunov, and another (Rusalka, 1900) that treated the famous legend of the water nymph who loves a mortal, widespread in the folklore of many European nations, in an unregenerately Wagnerian fashion. (The first act, for example, replays the opening scene of Das Rheingold, with Alberich and the Rhine Maidens dressed in Czech folk costume.) Rusalka alone has become an international repertoire item, but Dvořák's operas, with Smetana's, are the foundation of the operatic repertoire in his homeland.

Yet alongside this steady production of operas, and almost uniquely, Dvořák produced an equally steady stream of symphonic and chamber works. Here his indebtedness to Brahms as a model was as apparent as was his indebtedness to Wagner in the realm of opera. But in certain ways Dvořák managed to outstrip Brahms. He was, for one thing, far more prolific. His series of fourteen string quartets (composed between 1862 and 1895) was the most impressive such achievement since Beethoven. And he cultivated the other main chamber genres of his time with almost equal assiduity: five piano trios, two piano quintets, a piano quartet, two string quintets, a string sextet, and many more, including an octet (never published and now lost) for mixed strings and winds comparable to Schubert's except that it included a part for piano.

During their lifetimes, Dvořák's chamber music was (and probably would be found to remain, if statistics were available) more frequently performed than Brahms's. It owed its greater popularity (if not quite the same level of esteem from critics and connoisseurs) to its broader, more lyrical melodic content. Thus Dvořák could be viewed as standing in a line with Schubert as a chamber composer where Brahms, the “motivic miniaturist,” claimed direct descent from Beethoven. It is a cliché born of biased expectations to describe Dvořák's greater lyricism in terms of his national origin. Only in the “scherzo” slot, formerly occupied by the minuet, did Dvořák habitually write in a folkish style, substituting characteristic Czech dances like the polka and the furiant (an exuberant dance full of hemiola——rhythms) for what had often been in Haydn's day the “peasant” movement.

Dvořák's nine symphonies, though they came to a Beethovenian number in the aggregate, are individually quite motley in style. Again, the model that most frequently comes to mind is Schubert. There was one great difference between Dvořák's symphonic procedures and Schubert's, however, and that was his predilection for “cyclic” form, strictly a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon (though with a single colossal precedent in Beethoven). Both in his symphonies and in his concertos—especially late ones like the Ninth Symphony, op. 95 (1893), and the Cello Concerto, op. 104 (1895)—Dvořák occasionally recycled themes from movement to movement to a degree that lent his works a tinge of secret “programmaticism.”

Not that that suspicion would faze a symphonist who (unlike Brahms) had no qualms about composing symphonic poems as well. In fact, Dvořák's last orchestral works (composed 1896–97) were a cycle of symphonic poems comparable to Smetana's Má vlast, based on the ballads of Karel Jaromir Erben (1811–70), famous as a folklore collector (“the Czech Grimm”) but also a poet in his own right, who collected folk tales and worked them into narrative poems. Also Lisztian, both in title and content, were Dvořák's three Slavonic Rhapsodies for orchestra (1878). And yet Dvořák also wrote his share of fastidiously formed and titled concert overtures on the Mendelssohnian-Brahmsian model: My Home (1882), Carnival (1891), Othello (1892). And he even turned out a set of Symphonic Variations, a genre for which Brahms provided practically the only model, in 1877.

Dvořák's cyclic forms in symphonies and concertos are evidence not only of latent “poetic content” but also of virtuosically developed traditional skills, quite belying his cliché image as a “primitive.” It was not as a folksy primitive but as a world-class master of European music in the broadest sense that Jeannette M. Thurber, an American philanthropist, invited Dvořák to New York to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music, an institution she was endowing (very much in the same spirit that had motivated Anton Rubinstein in Russia thirty years before) to allow the spread of European art music to new shores, and its cultivation there—or, to put it another way, to further the musical colonization of the New World by the Old.

Dvořák's last symphony was composed during his American sojourn, which lasted from 1892 to 1895. Subtitled “Z nového svéta” (“From the new world”), it received its first performance in Carnegie Hall on Beethoven's birthday, 16 December 1893, under the baton of the Hungarian-born Anton Seidl (1850–98), an eminent Wagnerian conductor who was then at the helm of both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. While immediately successful, and an enduring repertoire item ever since, the symphony has occasioned much debate. Its subtitle could be read in various ways. Did it simply mean a symphony written in the New World—“Impressions and Greetings”7 (as the composer once put it) to those back home? Or did it imply that the thematic content—or perhaps even the “poetic” content—was in some sense (but what sense?) inherently American?

We will return to these questions, but only after taking a look at the music that gave rise to them. As in the case of Bruckner's Seventh, the slow second movement, which has become independently famous, is the obvious choice for a representative sample. Compared with its counterparts in Brahms, it is a curiously sectional, episodic piece, and in this, too, it seems to hark back to Schubert. Its thematic content is given out in fully rounded periods that later yield up motifs for development and recall, rather than proceeding the other way around (as Dahlhaus describes the Brahmsian manner) by starting with “an inconspicuous motive, which does not even appear as a theme at first, but only attains the function of a theme gradually, by virtue of the consequences drawn from it.”8 The following description can (and should) be matched up with the score for full comprehensibility.

The movement begins on a patently “Lisztian” note, with a sort of prefatory chorale in which the root progressions (except for the final plagal one) are entirely by thirds and “multiple thirds” (e.g., the initial tritone, representing two stages along the circle of minor thirds). The main theme, given out as a famous solo for the English horn (always an “exotic” timbre), could hardly be a more “finished” melody: twelve bars arranged by fours, ABA′. Following another invocation of the chromatic “chorale,” the opening section continues with another contrasting phrase and another “A′.”

At 2 a “middle section” in the parallel minor, at a slightly faster tempo, and in contrasting triplet rhythms ensues. It too consists of an alternation of rounded tunes (more obviously contrasting this time) in a format that can be summarized ABABA. The “B” section has a walking bass that (it is fair to say) inescapably evokes a procession. At 4 the mode shifts back to major for a much faster tune, notated in short note-values within a single bar but obviously a “four-measure” construction. Presented ostinato-fashion, it serves as the medium of a crescendo to a surging climax, after which (at 5) a return is made to the opening music, presented haltingly, with fermatas that interrupt the “singing” in a manner that recalls the muted end of the Marcia funebre in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. The coda, almost needless to add, is based on the introductory chorale. If the material at 4 is regarded as transitional, the whole movement recapitulates (or amplifies) the ABA′ structure of the opening section.

Not even the simplest formal description of the movement like the one just attempted can omit the “extroversive semiotics,” the signs pointing beyond its boundaries to other pieces and images, in this case funereal. But there is a large component of “introversive” signing as well. The climax at 5 measures before 5 (Ex. 14-4), throughout which the harmony remains frozen on the fraught—Schubertianly fraught!—chord of the flat submediant (♭VI), is shot through with reminiscences of the first movement. As comparison with Ex. 14-5 will corroborate, the trombones refer to the arpeggiating main theme of the earlier movement; the horns, violins, and woodwinds divide up motifs from the same movement's second theme; and the trumpets play reverberations (employing rustic “horn fifths”) of the opening phrase from the second movement's English horn solo. The whole passage reverberates and repercusses over a diminuendo: a very apt way of representing the onset and fading of a sudden memory.

Even more evocative (and even more contrapuntally resourceful) is the coda of the finale—that is, the coda to the entire symphony (Ex. 14-6). It “montages” motifs from all four movements (motifs that have already been sounding at various points throughout the finale) into new and striking configurations. (For corroboration, Ex. 14-7 displays the main theme of the scherzo.) Immediately before the start of Ex. 14-6, the Largo's introductory chorale had returned in glory at the peak of a crescendo. At its subsidence the opening phrase of the English horn solo is played against a reminiscence of the scherzo that passes dramatically down by octaves from the piccolo through the string section and into the timpani, where its reverberations accompany the softly-beginning last recall of the finale's main theme. Last is immediately juxtaposed with first at the climax, where the trumpets blare the finale theme, very dissonantly harmonized against the first movement's arpeggio theme.

A Bohemian Prescription for AmericaA Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-4 Antonín Dvořák, “New World” Symphony, II, 5 measures before fig. [5]

We have previously encountered a concatenation of motifs like this only once, and that was in the Norns’ scene from Götterdämmerung (see chapter 10). There, of course, the motifs had extroversive as well as introversive significance: they referred not only to other parts of the Ring, but to events, characters, and feelings. But as we have already had occasion to note in the case of the funereal slow movement, the “New World” Symphony abounds in extroversive reference (albeit of a conventional and generalized kind) and “intertextual” reference as well, as where Dvořák evokes Beethoven's Third Symphony, known presumably (or at least potentially) to most members of his original audience. Even without a program, moreover, thematic reminiscences, especially at such a level of concentration and climactic display, ineluctably suggest what the New Germans called “poetic content.” A symphony that appropriates so many devices of signification, not only from the symphonic poem but even from opera, becomes something of an opera for orchestra. But an opera about what?

A Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-5a Antonín Dvořák, “New World” Symphony, I, first theme

A Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-5b Antonín Dvořák, “New World” Symphony, I, second theme

A Bohemian Prescription for AmericaA Bohemian Prescription for AmericaA Bohemian Prescription for AmericaA Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-6 Antonín Dvořák, “New World” Symphony, IV, coda (motivic montage)

As Michael Beckerman, the leading American specialist in Czech music, has pointed out most recently (and in greatest detail), an answer to this question can be deduced by juxtaposing a comment Dvořák made to a New York reporter on the day of the premiere with the contents of a letter to Dvořák from Mrs. Thurber, his American employer. Dvořák himself pointed out that the symphony's Largo (then designated Adagio) was unusual in content and structure, “different from the classic works in this form.”9 As he felt he had to explain, “it is in reality a study or a sketch for a longer work, whether a cantata or an opera which I propose writing, and which will be based upon Longfellow's Hiawatha.” Anything can be said for the sake of publicity, of course, but in this case Dvořák's correspondence corroborates his avowal. One of Mrs. Thurber's provisos in hiring Dvořák to head the National Conservatory was that he foster an American national opera by providing an example for native-born composers. She even specified The Song of Hiawatha as the basis for the libretto.

A Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-7 Antonín Dvořák, “New World” Symphony, III, mm. 13–21 (woodwinds)

It was an almost inevitable choice. Operas on national myths had played an important role in establishing many national “schools,” and (as detailed in chapter 4) in some countries—Germany with its Freischütz, Russia with its Life for the Tsar—the opera in question served not only as a musical cornerstone but as a cornerstone of the nation's sense of nationhood. From the first, Longfellow's poem (published in 1855) had sought to serve this purpose, providing the United States with an ersatz national epic, something of which the nation's youth and modernity had deprived it.

The poem's heavy, frequently parodied trochaic meter (“BY the SHORES of GItchee GUmee…”) was copied from the Kalevala, the national epic of the Finns, first published in 1835 and given its definitive literary form by Elias Lönnrot in 1849, only half a dozen years before Longfellow imitated it. It, too, was something of an ersatz: Originally assumed to date as a unit from around the first millennium b.c.e., it was later shown to be a patchwork of oral poetry of which parts had originated as comparatively recently as the sixteenth century, and of which other parts had actually been created by Lönnrot in the process of its literary adaptation. The trochaic meter, however, was endemic to Finnish, one of the European languages (Hungarian and Dvořák's own Czech being others) in which all words are stressed on their first syllables.

A Bohemian Prescription for America

fig. 14-3 Hiawatha's Departure, after Longfellow.

In the case of Hiawatha, of course, the trochaic meter achieved its atmospheric purpose precisely because it was not endemic to English, but rather conjured up an air of nonspecific mythical exoticism and pseudoantiquity. The poem's protagonist, the legendary Mohawk or Onondaga chief Haionhwat'ha, actually lived in what is now upstate New York in the sixteenth century. He was credited in oral tradition with the founding, around 1570, of the Iroquois League, a mutual-defense confederation of five nations under an unwritten constitution, which became (with the assistance of Dutch arms) the foremost indigenous military power north of Mexico.

Except for one member nation, the League backed the British rather than the colonists in the American Revolutionary War; the ensuing hostility between the new United States government and the tribes was disastrous for the League's autonomy and led eventually to its destruction. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the structure of the Iroquois League was among the models considered by the Continental Congress in drafting the Articles of Confederation, the provisional American constitution that was drawn up in 1776 and in force from 1781 to 1789, and that defined the United States of America as a “league of friendship” for common defense.

Thus despite the actual hostility of the United States to its Indian population, a policy that in its late-nineteenth-century excesses went as far as genocide, the Iroquois League, and the figure of its legendary founder, could play the role of indigenous progenitor in romantic national mythology. The musicalization of that mythology is what Mrs. Thurber had asked of Dvořák. He never completed the opera for want of an actual libretto; but the music he sketched for it suffuses at least two of the movements of the “New World” Symphony, and probably all four.

The scherzo, by Dvořák's specific acknowledgment, “was suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance.”10 Beckerman has suggested that it was a representation of the Dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis, the great athlete, described by Longfellow at the beginning of chapter 11 of the poem, “Hiawatha's Wedding Feast.” Dvořák was less specific about the Largo, but to the critic Henry Krehbiel he confided that it was based on chapter 10, “Hiawatha's Wooing.” Because of its pastoral tone, Beckerman has suggested that the opening section, featuring the famous English horn solo, depicts Hiawatha's journey homeward with his bride Minnehaha (“Laughing Water”): “Short it seemed to Hiawatha,/Though they journeyed very slowly,/Though his pace he checked and slackened/To the steps of Laughing Water.”

The middle section, with all its funereal imagery (evident even without knowledge of a literary source), must correspond with the death and burial of Minnehaha in “Music in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” chapter 1. The grand concatenations of themes and motifs from all the movements in the finale are surely an indication that Dvořák envisioned his American mythic opera much along the lines of Wagner's German mythos in the Ring, with each of its acts (or movements in the corresponding symphony) drawing ever more extensively on a preexisting musical cosmos or past-in-music that gives ever increasing resonance to the unfolding narrative's events and reflections.

The remaining question, especially relevant in the case of a composer who often gave his music a national tinge, is whether the themes and motifs conceived originally in connection with Hiawatha or the “New World” Symphony were intended to be indicatively “American”; and if so, then on what stylistic basis? The only direct testimony is Dvořák's deliberate teaser: “the influence of America can be felt by anyone who has a ‘nose.’”11 Beyond that we must fall back on educated (which may mean biased) sniffing.

Dvořák is known to have been very much drawn to Negro spirituals and their professional arrangements called “plantation songs.” In an article published in Harper's Magazine (February 1895), he called them “the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water.” One of the students at the National Conservatory during Dvořák's tenure (though never his composition pupil, as has occasionally been claimed) was Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949), an African-American singer and choral conductor, who over the course of his career made almost two hundred arrangements of spirituals for chorus, and who recalled singing dozens of them to Dvořák during the period of the “New World” Symphony's gestation.

There are numerous pentatonic melodies in the symphony that seem to resonate stylistically with spirituals. The Largo's English horn theme (or rather its “A” section) is one. Another, the second theme from the first movement (quoted in Ex. 14-5b), can be interpreted as incorporating a brief quotation from the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”: its opening phrases correspond to the note sequence and (roughly) the rhythm to which the words “chariot,/comin’ for to carry me home” are set in the spiritual (compare Ex. 14-8).

A Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-8 Spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

But of course many Bohemian folk tunes share the pentatonic structure of spirituals and plantation songs, as do the folk songs of many nations. And given the front-stressed accent patterns of the Czech language, many Bohemian folk tunes also exhibit the “lombard” short-long rhythm that Dvořák's theme and “Swing Low” have in common. Both traits can be found, for example, in themes from Dvořák's Eighth Symphony (1889), composed before he ever had a thought of setting foot in the New World (Ex. 14-9).

A Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-9a Antonín Dvořák, Symphony no. 8 in G, I, flute solo, mm. 18–22 (pentatonic)

A Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-9b Antonín Dvořák, Symphony no. 8 in G, II, eight measures after fig. [F] (woodwinds)

And yet Dvořák did not hesitate to give fatherly advice to American composers to do as the Bohemians had done, and (in Krehbiel's paraphrase) submit the indigenous musics of their country, namely Indian melodies and Negro spirituals, “to beautiful treatment in the higher forms of art.”12 There is every reason to suppose that in his Hiawatha opera, and in the symphony that had spun off from it, he intended to provide them with an object lesson. Whether or not this can ever be proved, the fact remains that his melodies were taken as “American”—particularly the Largo's English horn theme, which may not have been a spiritual to begin with, but which became one. Many who do not know its source in Dvořák know it as “Goin’ Home”—and in view of Michael Beckerman's explanation of its basis in Longfellow, it seems possible that the “back-transfer” of this composed theme into the oral tradition may have been facilitated by someone who knew of Dvořák's original intentions.

But still, what are “plantation songs” doing in a work that sought America's mythic past in Indian lore? Not that the symphony lacks conventional Indian lore. Dvořák called the scherzo “an essay I made in the direction of imparting the local color of Indian character to music,”13 though no one has ever identified that character with quoted artifacts, or even with the style of the music except trivially—for example, in the use of insistent pedal basses (or “open fifths”) expressed in pulses like drumbeats or tom-toms. A similarly accompanied themelet in the first movement, from which the bridge to the second theme is then constructed, has also been suppositionally identified as “Indian” (Ex. 14-10).

A Bohemian Prescription for America

ex. 14-10 Antonín Dvořák, “New World” Symphony, I, “Indian” theme


(7) Josef Jan Kovařík to Otakar Šourek; quoted in Michael Beckerman, “The Master's Little Joke: Antonín Dvořák and the Mask of Nation,” in Dvořák and His World, ed. Michael Beckerman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 135.

(8) Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 154.

(9) New York Herald, 15 December 1893; quoted in Michael Beckerman, “Dvořák's ‘New World’ Largo and The Song of Hiawatha,” 19th-Century Music XVI (1992–93): 36.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Dvořák to Emil Kozanek, 12 April 1893; Otakar Šourek, Dvorak in Letters and Reminiscences (Prague: Artia, 1954), p. 158.

(12) New York Daily Tribune, 17 December 1893, p. 7; quoted in Michael Beckerman, “Henry Krehbiel, Antonín Dvořák, and the Symphony ‘From the New World,”’ MLA Notes XLIX (1992–93): 471.

(13) New York Herald, 15 December 1893; quoted in Beckerman, “Dvořák's ‘New World’ Largo and The Song of Hiawatha,” p. 36.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 11 Feb. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 11 Feb. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014003.xml