Antonín Dvořák had strong misgivings about making the long journey from his native Bohemia to the United States. "America is full of Indians and wild animals," the Czech composer declared in 1892, after the prestigious National Conservatory of Music offered him a teaching post in New York City. Despite his initial fears, Dvořák accepted, and his decision would help mold the course of orchestral music in the 20th century. Dvořák would compose his most popular and enduring symphony during his three-year sojourn the States, drawing on a palette of sounds that ranged from American folk music to North American bird songs.
On Friday, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra combined archival footage, historical photographs, real-time narration and, of course, live performance to explore the complexity and context of Dvořák's "From the New World" symphony.
Before the CSO performed all four movements from Dvořák's best-known work, they sought to put it in context. Denver-based actors Tim McCracken, Mare Trevathan and Jeff Roark read from a script first prepared by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a narration that detailed Dvořák's journey to America, his experience teaching at the National Conservatory and, most importantly, the varied influences that went into the composition of his ninth symphony, better known as "From the New World," for the New York Philharmonic.
The actors' reading found visual accompaniment in imagery beamed on a screen behind the symphony musicians. Photos of Dvořák and his family appeared with photos and grainy footage from the dawn of the 20th century. Black and white footage of steamships crossing the Atlantic and yellowed pages from the art section of an 1893 edition of the New York Times helped put the piece in its proper historical context.
As the actors broke down the component pieces of the New World symphony -- its use of repeated melodies and harmonies, the influence of Negro spirituals and Native American styles in its composition, its cues from Schubert and Beethoven -- the orchestra offered immediate, real-time illustrations.
This deeper look into one of modern music's most influential pieces came as part of the CSO's "Inside the Score" series, concerts that seek to invest great works of modern Classical music with more meaning and depth for audiences.
"The idea is that for pieces that we've heard so many times, like "The Firebird Suite" and "Symphonie Fantastique," rather than just hear the piece, it's worth it to investigate what is it that makes this piece so special," said CSO Resident Conductor Scott O'Neil, who led the CSO through the "New World Symphony" performance. "Why is it that we keep coming back to it?"
In the case of the "New World" symphony, much of the resonance has to do with creating an artistic identity for a young country, O'Neil said.
"When Dvořák was brought here, he was challenged to try to help the American composers create a national identity," O'Neil said. "His music was considered very, very Czech, and they thought that he might be able to instill a kind of nationalistic style in American composers."
Even though Dvořák pored over the melodies of spirituals and parsed the poetic cues in Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" to isolate distinctively American sounds and textures, he insisted the symphony had deep roots in the Old World. "These motifs are my own and I brought them with me to America ... They will always be Czech music."
But the symphony has held its sway on American music for more than a century, showing up in pieces by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. The influence is hard to miss, even for modern American audiences whose experience with orchestral music may be limited to film scores.
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"I think it has a very cinematic storyline aspect to it that naturally fits in a lot of what American composers did take as their own style," O'Neil said. "Certainly, if you hear the beginning of the finale, it's tough for anyone who's seen the movie 'Jaws' not to think of that. You're like, 'Oh my gosh, that's 'Jaws'!"
For O'Neil, the piece's resonance is much more personal.
"It's one of the first pieces of classical music that I came across," O'Neil said. "One of Dvořák's great gifts is he has really cool melodies. It may seem a little bit obtuse, but within the world of classical music, some composers aren't as melodic. But once you hear these, they're so easy for the mind to grasp, they really stick."