Dvorak Symphony no. 9 in Em, op. 95: 120th anniversary

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Raphael Kubelik, or below with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karajan:

Some interesting facts about this piece:

It’s worth noting (as I mentioned in the Dvorak 2 post) that until his earlier symphonies were discovered, this one was labeled as symphony number 5.

This piece was a commission from the New York Philharmonic, and Dvorak says of the symphony’s inspiration:

“I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”

The piece premiered 120 years ago today, on December 16, 1893 by the New York Philharmonic under Anton Seidl.

The first movement opens famously and serenely….

No, no, no.  There is absolutely zero need to discuss this one play-by-play. I feel it’s one of those symphonies that even those “opposed” to classical music can recognize and anticipate. It’s famous and fulfilling and even overplayed. A friend of mine who played in symphonies in America has lost her joy of this piece for that reason. I still love it, but interestingly so, maybe slightly LESS than I did before I picked this one up for writing.

I spent the beginning of last week preparing for a trip to Shanghai and the rest of the week in Shanghai. I even missed Mozart Monday. No worries. We’ll get to that later.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an amazing symphony, and a fundamental piece of the repertoire, for good reason. But I want to start this post by referencing a fantastic analysis of this piece by Maestro Leonard Bernstein. It is a must watch (listen?) for anyone remotely familiar with this piece.Dvorak himself says the following:

“I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral color.”

There’s very little I can add to his supremely clear analysis of the idea of it being a symphony based on ’new world’ African and Native American themes that ends up being…. just a very good old world symphony that smacks of indigenous music. But… I can talk a bit about how I feel about it and what it makes me think of and about.

Movement one, after the introduction is stirring, heroic and gripping. One does realize that this symphony, as Bernstein said, is one of themes and their nature unto themselves rather than the development and blossoming of one small seed of a melody or motif, as Beethoven’s third or fifth, which may lend itself, depending on the obviousness of this development and architecture, to a more educated audience (one who can see the relationships between motifs and melodies and symphonic structure). Dvorak here to me more resembles the struggle of Tchaikovsky of not getting bogged down in so many beautiful themes. The themes here are so strong and could potentially be willfully independent, but they interact well enough together to give a very tightly-written symphony.

The pentatonic scale is at first most visible in the second theme of the first movement (at least to me) and is the theme I may have the hardest time getting out of my head. First movement ends in an almost awkwardly abrupt manner, and keeps you kind of anxious for something after it.

This may be a wonderfully great symphony for a beginner, since there is always something pleasing and attractive going on without getting (but dangerously close to being, at multiple listens) saccharine or cliche.

Mvt 2. has a beautiful storyline. Soft brass fanfare opens the piece serenely, and then woodwinds dominate the chorale.  This bit, no matter how famous or overplayed, has still to me to be one of the most beautiful musical passages in the history of history. The lead-in to the English horn solo, the chord progressions that follow, and the adagio-like bit in strings that echo it after are so emotional they stir me to tears (or close, goosebumps and my own little moment of silence, at the very least). There is something beautifully solemn and reminiscent and almost sacred about this movement. As Bernstein noted, this is NOT based on the American spiritual “Goin’ Home”. The American spiritual came AFTER. Way to go there, Tony. Quite a hit. More on trendsetting later. I have something to say about how that solo is played too.

The second part of this movement is rather different. The English horn comes back (oboe?) and gives us a more stirring middle section. The tone (as in the mood, not sound quality) is somewhat the same, due to the similarities in orchestration and what I assume is the same key, but strings enter behind the wood winds full of motion, kind of the musical version of when the leaves get blown across the ground in that foreboding way in a movie as if to suggest drama is coming. Woodwind come back very happily and the ternary form of this movement comes to a climax when the middle section builds up to material from the first movement (another unique feature of this symphony; this happens a lot, and kind of acts as a review for the listeners. It’s very obvious and ties the whole piece together nicely). It then works its way back down to the way it began and fades away in low strings.

Dvorak is a tricky fellow, and after rocking us in the soft comfortable cradle of the second movement, we’re smacked with the beginning of the third. Familiar material instantly shows up but builds to an exciting scherzo that feels Brucknerian in its form and emotion. It’s very Austrian sounding, and that’s a great thing. This is the shortest movement of the piece. If one weren’t familiar with the very traditional idea of a third movement scherzo/trio and the classical images it portrays, sections of this movement sound pastoral and almost American folky as well. The contrast to the beginning theme is happy and light and almost like something out of the sound of music. It makes you want to get up and do some kind of traditional folk dance you’ve never learned. It’s so funny that while I can still hear the immediate appeal of this movement as one of those movements included in one of those classical movement compilation box sets that I hate because they only have individual movements out of context instead of the whole work, the very very classical nature of this piece has become far more apparent in both the very traditional nature of its structure and the style of the music itself. It’s so satisfying, and we get the theme from movement one again, but sort of remixed with this movement’s material. There’s a stinger at the end of this movement that finishes it definitively before we get to movement 4.

It again feels like everything ever heard in this piece was the only logical natural progression of what the whole piece must undoubtedly would lead to. That could perhaps be because I’ve heard it a million times. But maybe not. The jaws like thee leads up to that theme. That theme!!!! That’s the one. If you don’t know this piece, you’ve likely heard this bit, and if you know it, you’ve likely been holding your breath for it for the past half hour. It roars in like the hero at the end to save the day. There seems to be such agreement and definitiveness among the orchestra as to this movement’s epicness and energy. It’s heroic and strong and stirring and also very German to me. And oh how do I love the triplet figure passage to contrast with the hero theme here. It’s so lively and crisp. It’s like a celebration somehow.

I believe this movement is in sonata form as well. There are lots of “hey! I remember that,” moments here because of teeny little quotes from the previous movements. When the main theme here comes back about halfway through it sounds almost military in nature. In some ways, by this time, though the themes in the separate movements have been reworked, remixed, and redesigned so that it can be hard to remember exactly where one originated.

The coda in this piece flips through the previous bits and pieces of the symphony before ending as abruptly and unassumingly as did the second, but this time it’s the real end. I feel like that makes a statement about the piece as a whole. Let’s talk about the piece as a whole.

I was a bit apprehensive to approach this one. It’s famous and traditional and I am not a professional. There are a few important things this piece got me to thinking about.

If you still haven’t watched Bernstein’s link about this piece, do it now.  He kind of analyzes and breaks the piece down into why it isn’t actually American at all, even though it feels so very familiar and cozy and almost historically significant as part of American culture. It isn’t. There is nothing more I can add to what the Maestro had to say about this piece, and paraphrasing it does not do it justice. Just go check it out.

It seems Kubelik’s tempos here are a bit slower than average, but I’m not sure. I like it. I can see how some passages may be more exciting a bit faster, but to me, it takes some of the weight out of the piece. Many of these passages with the horns and other brass are strong and confidently pesante, and I don’t know that I would like them if they were rushed through too much.

I heard a local orchestra perform this piece the week before last, which is how I decided it would be next in line, although it took me a few weeks to listen to it, take a break from it and cleanse my palate with some other stuff before coming back and being objective about it. They played it fantastically well, but I had some issues with the tempo during the solo in the second movement. It felt hurried and impatient. I think that’s the biggest mistake I hear made (in my opinion) with lots of performances I hear (mostly live), especially with solo piano pieces. Idil Biret and Krystian Zimerman come to mind as two pianists who treat Chopin with the utmost delicacy and respect, not rushing through or pushing the tempo too much. For a symphonic piece, I would assume the blame goes to the conductor, but one can’t say there is a right or wrong tempo, within certain boundaries, and there is probably always some degree of logic or reasoning behind one decision or the other. I just felt it was almost disappointingly rushed through, instead of giving respect to that moment and savoring it and giving it enough room to breathe. It was mildly disappointing, and actually surprising when I heard it.

This piece got me to thinking too, that context and labels are hugely important. He created a landscape based on German and Slavic and indigenous melodies and scales, mixed it all together and slapped a German name on it and called it American. Dvorak told us “this is American” and we bought it. And it became so.

The disadvantage to this is embodied in a few statements I have heard recently, completely unrelated to music. One is a quote from E.B. White. He said that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog: you may understand it better in the end, but in the process, you’ve killed it. The other, in a similar fashion, was a statement by someone complaining that understanding the physical laws and chemistry and physics behind everyday things we see ruins the “magic” of just appreciating them as they are, like just being satisfied enough with seeing the emerald city and not needing to spoiling it by demanding to see the man behind the curtain.

Is some of that the case with this piece? Was it more enjoyable to marvel at Dvorak’s gorgeous melodies and orchestration and just be carried along for the ride  than to know about pentatonic scales and modes and then whys and wherefores that make it so enjoyable? I’m not sure. I would say it makes the piece feel less abstract (is that the word I want? Magical? Used that one. Intrigue or sparkle, like when someone explains to you their card trick). It makes you realize that Dvorak didn’t just hit a stroke of genius, but that it was a carefully planned and organized effort to get the intended result. It’s a beautiful piece of music. Obviously a classic for a very good reason. Happy 120th anniversary!

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