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Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 25, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Jeanette Thurber, founder of the National Conservatory in New York in 1885, decided that Dvorˇák was the man needed to run and to attract students to her floundering school and invited him to do so in 1891. Dvorˇák did not jump at the chance, having little inclination to leave his family and his work as head of the composition department of the Prague Conservatory. But the offer was too generous to be refused. He was contracted to spend two years in the U.S. – another year was subsequently added – conducting ten concerts of his own works, and assuming the duties of director and master teacher of the Conservatory, with four months vacation per year, all at a salary of $15,000 per annum.
After various delays the Dvorˇáks, with two of their six children (the others remained in Prague with relatives) boarded ship at Bremen in September of 1892. At dockside in New York he was greeted by the secretary of the Conservatory, accompanied by a large and hearty group of Czech-Americans. After a few days of sightseeing and observing – awestruck – New York’s lavish celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, he was introduced to the Conservatory.
The composer’s notebooks indicate that he began work on the E-minor Symphony in December of 1892. He was subsequently induced by his secretary and interpreter J. J. Kovarˇík, a young Czech-American he had met in Prague, to visit the Bohemian colony in Spillville, Iowa, the following summer.
On the way there the Dvorˇáks – all their children with them now – visited Niagara Falls, Chicago, St. Paul, and Omaha. Spillville proved pleasurable and inspiring: it was there that he wrote his “American” String Quartet and the String Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97. Back in New York, he resumed work on the Symphony, completing sketches of the first three movements by mid-January 1893. On May 24 what would be Dvorˇák’s final symphony was completed.
Kovarˇík wrote the following of the subsequent meeting between Dvorˇák and Anton Seidl, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Society:
“In the afternoon the Master used to visit the Fleischmann Café at the corner of Broadway and 10th Street where he met Seidl regularly… Seidl said he had heard that the Master had a new symphony and asked him for permission to perform it at one of the next concerts of his orchestra… The following day Seidl informed the Master that the Symphony would be given at the concert to be held around the 15th of December and that he should send him the score as soon as possible.
“The same evening… the Master wrote the following on the title page: ‘Z Nového sveˇta’… The title, ‘From the New World,’ has caused much confusion. There were and are many who thought and think that the title is to be understood as meaning the ‘American’ Symphony,’ i.e., a symphony with American music. This is wrong! The title means nothing more than ‘Impressions and Greetings from the New World’ – as the Master himself explained on more than one occasion.”
Much ink has, however, since been expended on showing certain associations with Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and spirituals sung to the composer by his African-American student, Henry Burleigh. The matter remains open to speculation.
Of the E-minor Symphony’s premiere, which took place as scheduled on December 15 in Carnegie Hall, the New York Herald commented: “The famous Czech composer would be a difficult man to satisfy if he were not satisfied with the enthusiasm his new Symphony evoked in a very large audience. After the second movement he was given an enthusiastic ovation. Storms of applause resound… From all over the hall come cries of ‘Dvorˇák! Dvorˇák!’… Dr. Dvorˇák, hands trembling with emotion, indicates his thanks to Mr. Seidl, the orchestra, and the audience, whereupon he disappears into the background while the Symphony continues. After the conclusion of the work he is called for with stormy insistence. He bows again and again, and new storms of applause break out. And even when he has left his box and entered the foyer, the clapping continues. At last he returns to the gallery.... The whole orchestra and Mr. Seidl are clapping too…”
- Herbert Glass