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Carnegie Hall Premieres: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”

Imagine being able to travel back in time for the premiere of your favorite musical work. Would you be in Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater for the 1824 premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Or perhaps you’d like a bit of controversy and the tumultuous 1913 debut of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées? Carnegie Hall would be a favorite time-travel destination because it has been home to thousands of musical premieres since its 1891 opening. Join us as we turn back the clock.

The History of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9

The year is 1893. Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was living in New York for more than a year, working as artistic director and professor of composition at the National Conservatory of Music in America at the request of its president, Jeannette Thurber.

Dvořák was already a popular composer in the US, having made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1892 conducting members of the New York Philharmonic, New York Symphony Orchestra, chorus, and soloists in two of his own works, including the world premiere of his Te Deum.

Thurber wanted Dvořák to help create a uniquely American style of art music—and paid him well for it. This year, his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World” (one of the milestones of 19th-century classical music), makes its debut.

Composing “From the New World”

Dvořák was looking for a truly American musical idiom, and he found major inspiration in African American spirituals. He first heard them in arrangements by conservatory student and composer Harry Thacker Burleigh.

Dvořák listened to Burleigh sing songs he learned from his grandfather, who had formerly been enslaved. While Dvořák maintained there are no actual quotations of African American melodies in the “New World” Symphony, there’s no denying the presence of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the opening movement.

Fast Facts About Dvořák’s “From the New World” Symphony

  1. The symphony’s world premiere is listed as December 16, 1893, but a performance was open to the public on December 15. A capacity crowd queued outside the Hall in the pouring rain to get a first listen.
  2. Dvořák attended the December 16 performance and sat in Box No. 10 on the Second Tier.
  3. The symphony’s most famous passage is the gorgeous Largo. It’s purely Dvořák’s invention and was eventually crafted by his student William Arms Fisher into the spiritual-like song “Goin’ Home.” The Largo was performed at the funerals of presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gerald Ford.
  4. Dvořák composed his magnificent symphony while living at 327 East 17th Street in Manhattan. He wrote to a friend of the experience: “We live four minutes from my school in a very pleasant house. Mr. Steinway sent me a piano, free, so we have one good piece of furniture in the parlor. The rent is $80 a month—a lot for us, but a normal price here.”
  5. The New York Evening Post wrote of the symphony, “Anyone who heard it could not deny that it is the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country.”

Experience Carnegie Hall’s Program from 1893

There were no sound recordings in 1893, but our Carnegie Hall Premieres: Dvořák’s “From the New World” Symphony playlist recreates the program. Listen to music by Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvořák performed by Carnegie Hall legends Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, and David Oistrakh. There are even a few encore surprises to round out the concert experience!

Images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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