Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, the New World Symphony, is played so often that it runs the risk of sounding hackneyed. That fact became painfully obvious to me during a recent visit to Japan, when I heard the symphony's beautiful English horn melody in a cheesy, electronic rendition, signaling "all clear to walk" at a bustling Sapporo intersection.
As I returned to Dvorak's popular symphony recently, I was struck by how incredibly fresh the music really is. I was reminded of how Johannes Brahms was moved by Dvorak's melodic gifts, as well as his ability to spin a seemingly infinite number of variations on a tune. This, combined with Dvorak's Bohemian heritage, results in music unlike any other composer's.
Symphony No. 9 is nicknamed New World because Dvorak wrote it during the time he spent in the U.S. in the 1890s. His experiences in America (including his discovery of African-American and Native-American melodies) and his longing for home color his music with mixed emotions. There's both a yearning that simmers and an air of innocence.
The music, for me, evokes images. As the symphony opens, I picture Dvorak at the stern of the ship that carries him to America, away from his country. As the land drifts out of sight, he is suddenly jarred by the thought of the unknown with a blast from the French horn.
This slow introduction conveys many emotions — sadness, fear, suspense, even a ray of hope — in its brief 23 measures, until Dvorak eventually chooses which main melody will take over the main part of the movement. A nostalgic folk tune provides simplicity and variety, leading to the second theme, which is really a variation of what came before, illustrating Dvorak's inventiveness with melody.
The New World Symphony's best-known melody surfaces in the "Largo" movement, with its aching English horn solo. It was later adapted into the song "Goin' Home" by Harry Burleigh, a black composer whom Dvorak befriended while in New York. But I'm always moved by the church-like chords that come before that now-famous tune. In a stroke of innovative genius, Dvorak brings these opening chords back at the climax of the finale, where all the melodies from the symphony, reappear, transformed by the journey.
In the scherzo movement that follows, Dvorak explores the dance rhythms and melodies of his heritage. They feel new and fresh, yet familiar at the same time. It contrasts with the finale, which begins with a newfound urgency, setting up the nobility and majesty of the main melody heard in the brass.
The New World Symphony is for me, above all, a journey — Dvorak's journey to America, getting to know its people. But more importantly, it's Dvorak's own spiritual and emotional journey: from his intense longing for his beloved Bohemia to the thrill of the "new world" and its varied peoples, to thoughts of going home.
When all the melodies return at the end of the symphony, I feel as though Dvorak's American adventure has come full circle. The end reminds me of an old film where the last scene is frozen and the circle of the lens closes in until a black screen is all that remains.