Monday, January 10, 2011

First Look: Dvořák's Symphony No. 9

How does great music sound at first hearing? In the case of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, we have an answer thanks to the New York Herald, which cleverly dispatched a reviewer to an open rehearsal of the work given the day before its premiere in Carnegie Hall December 16, 1893. Excerpts from the review follow. Note that the Herald’s press room was apparently not equipped for Czech diacritical marks, and printed the composer’s name in straight text:

Dr. Dvorak’s Great Symphony –
The Director of the National Conservatory
Adds a Masterpiece to Musical Literature

“Dr. Antonin Dvorak, the famous Bohemian composer and director of the National Conservatory of music, dowered American art with a great work yesterday, when his new Symphony in E minor, ‘From the New World,’ was played was played at the second Philharmonic rehearsal at Carnegie Music Hall. The day was an important one in the musical history of America. It witnessed the first public performance of a noble composition…. The work was of heroic proportions. And it was one cast in the art form which such poet-musicians as Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and many another ‘glorious one of the earth’ has enriched with the most precious outwailings of his musical imagination…. And this new symphony by Dr. Antonin Dvorak is worthy to rank with the best creations of those musicians whom I have just mentioned. Small wonder that the listeners were so enthusiastic. The work appealed to their sense of the aesthetically beautiful by its wealth of tender, pathetic, fiery melody, by its rich harmonic clothing; by its delicate, sonorous, gorgeous, ever-varying instrumentation. ”…

The review, illustrated with drawings of the composer and of the orchestra and conductor Anton Seidl in action, continues for several thousand more words of highly insightful musical description, which clearly presupposes a readership familiar with musical vocabulary, not just instrument names, but also terms such as ‘unison’ and ‘tremolo.’ Connections to Native American music are suggested, and of this thought, the writer sums it up as follows: “It is, as Dr. Dvorak said, the ‘spirit’ of a national music as distinguished from the formal characteristics. And it is that spirit, passed through the imagination of a great poet.”

Ah, the good old days: when newspapers dared to dedicate two full pages to fine arts reporting! Incidentally, the symphony’s formal premiere that evening shared the program with the Brahms Violin Concerto and selections from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

--Betsy Schwarm

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