This Is What You Need to Know about African-American Spirituals and Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák is among the world’s great masters of 19th century symphonic form. His Ninth Symphony has achieved lasting popularity among the professional musicians who appreciate its technical achievements, as well as among generations of listeners who love it for its captivating melodies, grandeur of expression, and echoes of American—notably African-American—folk music themes.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, is specifically entitled “From the New World.” Here’s what you need to know about the composer, his Ninth Symphony, and its connection to African-American spirituals:
Dvořák’s Immigration to New York
Dvořák arrived in the United States in September 1892, wife and children accompanying him. He was taking up a position as music director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, hired away from Prague by wealthy patron of the arts Jeannette Thurber.
The salary was 25 times what Dvořák earned back home, and even came with a perk: he would have summers off. The composer remained in New York until April 1895, working on composing music that incorporated American themes.
He finished an “American” string quartet while on summer vacation in the Czech-American town of Spillville in Iowa. Dvořák also conducted a special “Bohemian Day” at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. And he composed the New World Symphony.
The “New World” Symphony
He completed the score for the “New World” Symphony in May 1893. One of the reasons Dvořák may have felt a strong connection with African-American folk music was his own Czech cultural nationalism. The Bohemian lands of what would become the Czech Republic were then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
A Czech nationalist revival gathered force throughout the 19th century, promoting Czech as an alternative to the German language, and elevating Czech folklore themes in literature, art, and music. Dvořák was among the leading exemplars of this Czech national pride.
The New York Philharmonic debuted the Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893. The now-storied venue had only been open for 18 months. Dvořák himself, who had previously conducted at Carnegie Hall on four occasions during his sojourn in the United States, was present in the audience, with the Philharmonic under the leadership of Anton Seidl.
The Influence of Harry Thacker Burleigh
The National Conservatory, in a rare decision for its time, opened its doors to talented music students regardless of ethnic background or family connections. This included many Black students. Several of the professional connections Dvořák made during his tenure brought African-American music to his attention.
One such connection was Harry Thacker Burleigh, the son of an Erie, Pennsylvania, domestic worker. Although Burleigh’s mother had a classical education and knew Greek and French, no other employment was available to her. Always musical, the young Burleigh took a number of clerical jobs, including that of librarian for the National Conservatory’s orchestra while he was studying there on scholarship.
Conductors typically work closely with an orchestra’s librarian. This was certainly true of Burleigh and Dvořák. Operetta composer Victor Herbert later noted that Burleigh provided Dvořák with a number of themes used in the Ninth Symphony. This contemporaneous evidence is particularly notable in light of the fact that, even today, some sources discount the influence of African-American musicians on the symphony.
Burleigh often sang the spirituals he had learned from his blind grandfather—an enslaved man who later purchased his freedom—for the Czech composer. He, in turn, was a defining influence on Burleigh’s later career as a singer, teacher, and composer.
The Influence of Will Marion Cook
Will Marion Cook, a young violinist and Dvořák’s student at the conservatory, also deepened the great composer’s knowledge of the rich heritage of what were then called “Negro spirituals.” Cook, born in Washington, DC to a middle-class family, would go on to become a noted conductor, composer of Broadway musicals, and teacher of a young Duke Ellington.
The Library of Congress lists Cook among the greatest African-American musical talents before the Jazz Age. Cook himself first encountered African-American folk songs when he, at age 12, was sent to visit his grandfather in Tennessee.
Dvořák himself later wrote, using the language of the day, that any truly American music would need to draw its main inspiration from “Negro melodies or Indian chants.” He went on to say that “the most potent as well as most beautiful among them” were the “plantation melodies and slave songs,” with their “unusual and subtle harmonies.” Harry Burleigh recalled Dvořák once remarking that the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” was equal in greatness to any of the works of Beethoven.
The New World Symphony uses numerous elements that distinguish the spirituals anchored in the lives of enslaved Americans: pentatonic scales, syncopation, and flattened sevenths. While musicologists still debate whether or not Dvořák literally transported traditional spirituals into the work note-for-note, there is no doubt that it was heavily influenced by them, as the composer himself attested.
Music scholar Joseph Horowitz told NPR in 2019 that the African-American influences on classical music—on Dvořák in particular—are part of “buried history.” The Czech composer, said Horowitz, became “consumed” by a desire to show America a truer musical portrait of itself by highlighting this contribution to a renewed and more authentically American style.
In the first movement of the New World Symphony, the second theme echoes the melody of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” In the lyrical Largo second movement, Dvořák developed what is now called the “Goin’ Home” theme, played by English horn. Beloved by generations of Americans, this theme is Dvořák’s creation, although it certainly references traditional African-American melodies and harmonies he had picked up.
The theme only acquired words in 1922. William Arms Fisher, one of Dvořák’s white students, wrote the lyrics. They referenced the beauty and power of traditional spirituals. African-American churches, along with many others, have adopted the melody into numerous hymnbooks.
Notable Performances of “Goin’ Home”
“Goin’ Home” was played in tribute by an African-American US Navy accordionist, Graham W. Jackson, in Warm Springs, Georgia, after President Franklin Roosevelt died there. In 1949, Black pianist Art Tatum composed the “Largo” swing, referencing Dvořák’s tune, and in 1958, Paul Robeson famously performed “Goin’ Home” at Carnegie Hall.
The haunting, transformative power of this piece of music has moved people all over the world. In one recent notable performance, the Silk Road Ensemble recorded it under the direction of Yo-Yo Ma. The performance featured a Chinese sheng and an American banjo, with a singer performing in both Mandarin and English.
In 1904, Dvořák died in Prague at age 63. One of his obituaries noted the sorrow of so many music lovers, saying specifically that “Afro-American musicians alone could flood his grave with tears.”