DVOŘÁK SYMPHONY NO. 9: “FROM THE NEW WORLD”
“I always have been interested in composing; I started in junior high school,” Alexander Miller said in a telephone interview. “I’ve continued composing on the side ever since.” A Juilliard graduate in oboe, where he wrote pieces for his fellow wind students, Miller is now assistant principal oboist with the Grand Rapids Symphony.
Miller is an eclectic, composing on subjects as varied as nineteenth-century French literature, Balinese gamelan music, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington, fireworks displays, a remix of Pachelbel's Canon in D and the translation of encaustic (a combination of wax and resin) painting into a clarinet concerto.
Miller composed Scherzo Crypto in 2014 on commission from the San Antonio Symphony. He joins a small collection of composers – the most notable being J. S. Bach Edward Elgar who composed musical works containing mind-bending enigmas, number puzzles and even visual conundrums. Miller writes: “I cannot resist the urge to deconstruct elegant things and to find the gems nestled inside. Most of the composers I have known are like this, by the way: intensely curious about the inner workings of beauty.
“For my latest commission, a concert opener for the San Antonio Symphony… I wanted to address this side of me and find a way to compose something that is simultaneously music and (if you want) a puzzle... It is a lively showpiece for full orchestra with a particular emphasis on the virtuosity of the strings and percussion. If you want to enjoy the piece as just that, it’s all there. I’m very proud of it.
“However, there is also a puzzle somehow hidden in the fabric of the piece. A word has been secretly woven into the music, spelled out many different times, always using the same method.
“The only thing I will ever reveal about the puzzle’s answer is that it is the name of a musical instrument.”
Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61
Composer, organist and pianist Camille Saint-Saëns was a man of wide culture, well versed in literature, the arts and scientific developments. He was phenomenally precocious and gifted in everything he undertook. As a child prodigy he wrote his first piano compositions at age three and at age ten made his formal debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, playing Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos. In his youth he was considered an innovator, but by the time he reached maturity he had become a conservative pillar of the establishment, trying to maintain the classical musical tradition in France and expressing open disdain for the new trends in music, including the “malaise” of Wagnerism. His visceral dislike of Debussy made endless headlines in the tabloid press. As a performer – he premiered his five piano concertos – his technique was elegant, effortless and graceful. But neither his compositions nor his pianism were ever pinnacles of passion or emotion. Berlioz noted that Saint-Saëns “...knows everything but lacks inexperience.”
Saint-Saëns was a consummate craftsman and a compulsive worker. “I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples,” he commented. He was a proponent of “art for art's sake” but his views on expression and passion in art conflicted with the prevailing literary and emotive Romantic ideas. He wrote in his memoirs: “Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotion, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music.” And also: “Beware of all exaggeration.”
Saint-Saëns’ large and diverse output includes chamber works for most orchestral instruments. Although his music was often perceived as passé, he was the first composer to write an original film score in 1908 for L’assassinat du Duc de Guise (The assassination of the Duke of Guise).
The Violin Concerto No. 3, composed in 1880, was dedicated to the violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who premiered it the same year. It is one of Saint-Saëns’ most elegant works, a display of virtuosity without the excessive showmanship that dogged so many late-nineteenth-century violin concertos.
The opening movement is at times both dramatic and tender. Written in an abbreviated sonata form without a formal recapitulation, it opens with the soloist, rather than the orchestra. Saint-Saëns then spins out a series of new musical motives, some loosely based on the opening few notes, but he delays the traditional cantabile second theme. He reserves the pyrotechnics until the end of the development section but does not give the soloist a cadenza.
Perhaps the most conservative of the three movements is the second, a lovely Andantino, almost a lullaby. The second half of the theme sounds more in the style of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy than French. The middle section introduces a new melody.
The Finale, Allegro non troppo, is the most dramatic and technically challenging movement. It opens with an introduction in the form of a sparkling cadenza foreshadowing the principal theme of the movement and punctuated by menacing orchestral exclamations and timpani rolls. & The movement is also in sonata form with an array of themes, including a new one introduced in the middle of the development section. After a recapitulation of the three main themes, a lively coda with a rush to the finish allows the soloist to whip the audience into a mood for cheers and standing ovation.
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”
Antonín Dvořák’s sojourn in the United States from 1892 to 1895 came about through the efforts of Mrs. Jeanette B. Thurber. A dedicated and idealistic proponent of an American national musical style, she underwrote and administered the first American music conservatory, the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Because of Dvořák’s popularity throughout Europe, he was Thurber’s first choice for a director. He, in turn, was probably lured to the big city so far from home by both a large salary and convictions regarding musical nationalism that paralleled Mrs. Thurber’s own.
Thirty years before his arrival in New York Dvořák had read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha in a Czech translation and was eager to learn more about the Native American and African American music, which he believed should be the basis of the American style of composition. He also shared with Mrs. Thurber the conviction that the National Conservatory should admit Negro students.
While his knowledge of authentic Native American music is questionable – his exposure came through samples transcribed for him by American friends and through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – he became familiar with Negro spirituals through one of his students, as well as indirectly via the songs of Stephen Foster. He incorporated both of these styles into the Symphony No. 9, composed while he was in New York.
Just as Dvořák never quoted Bohemian folk music directly in his own nationalistic music, he did not use American themes in their entirety. Rather, he incorporated characteristic motives into his own unsurpassed gift for melody. Nevertheless, any listener with half an ear can discern fragments of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the second theme of the first movement, as well as “Massa Dear” (also known as “Goin’ Home”) in the famous English horn solo in the second movement. We can deduce the importance of these musical motives from the fact that they appear as reminiscences in more than one movement, especially in the finale. The symphony, however, is hardly an American pastiche; the second motive in the largo movement is a phrase of wrenching musical longing that many listeners interpret as the composer’s nostalgia for his native Bohemia. Other melodies, such as the principal theme of the first movement, seem to have no particular origin beyond the composer's inspiration.
It is curious that Dvořák seemed to make no distinction between the folk music of American slaves and American Indians. While the second movement uses a theme from African America spirituals, the composer also claimed that it had been inspired by Longfellow’s epic, perhaps by Minnehaha’s forest funeral. The third movement as well, in its rhythmic thumping, its use of the pentatonic scale and the orchestration dominated by winds and percussion is meant to portray an Indian ceremonial dance described in Longfellow’s poem. Incidentally, Dvořák had also intended to compose an opera on Hiawatha, which never even approached completion. But his symphonic use of what he believed to be an authentic Native American musical idiom may have represented his initial ideas for the opera.
One of the most important features of the Symphony is its thematic coherence. Whatever the origin of the melodies, they all have a modular characteristic in that they can be mixed and matched in many different ways. In the finale Dvořák brings nearly all of the Symphony's themes together, sometimes as one long combined melody, sometimes incontrapuntal relationship to each other.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015