Week35: dvorak’s symphony #9 ‘From the New World’


where’d all these people emerge from?? merely a high of 14 degrees yesterday and the sidewalks were a post-hibernum shoulder-to-shoulder procession of bleached blue jeans, hair tossed left and right and center to reclaim the volume that’s been flattened by toques, earmuffs and the like…

i don’t think we appreciate enough just how different the contrasting facets of our personalities are from one season to the next. it is, for example, a superb instance of our instincts for temporal orientation that we should hold our federal elections in october: conservations would otherwise always win if votes were cast in the middle of winter, and---in light of weather like we enjoyed this past saturday---the liberals would wipe the floor if the polls opened late spring or early summer. that theory of course fails to explain conservative strongholds like texas and their year-round keepin’ on the sunnyside, then again what care would bible toting open-carriers have for the vicissitudes and subtle consequences of seasonal changes.   

aside from the growing list of usages i’m not entirely sure of, this blog is also way of keeping track with those subtle consequences with the infinitesimally subtle gauge of music, the language of the spirit… and with dvorak’s New World Symphony i’ve reached the part of this 52-week catalogue wherein every conservative instinct accumulated from november to march is undoffed. one feels the urge to put oneself about a bit, ‘put a bit of stick about, make them jump. That sort of thing.’ undoff---that is the image that comes to mind in the final and furious movement of this Symphony #9---a hat carried off by a warm breeze. spring is here at last, and to this catalogue that means: enough of beethoven and the germans for now, indeed the colours of spring are more vivid in The New World than the Pastoral--- and i’m in the mood for something more mediterranean?

Dvorak by Jeremy Lewis @jplewisandsons

Dvorak by Jeremy Lewis @jplewisandsons

Having been introduced to Native American and African songs in New York, Dvorak proclaimed them to be the true voice of the nation---which in some circles provoked a chorus of racist outrage. At Carnegie Hall in 1893 he premiered what is still his most famous work and one of the most popular of all symphonies, Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (“From the New World”). He claimed that it had been inspired by American native music, including a slow movement in the style of a black spiritual. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

the symphony begins much in the same style and sibelius’ symphony#2, written just nine years thereafter: with a forlorn melody on horns in contradistinction to the swell of the string section. the character of the french horn, too, seemed to have inspired the otherwise entirely unique accent of the instrument’s incarnation in sibelius’ tone poems (Swan of Tuonela especially). in the case of The New World, the main theme first appears on flute and is ignited by the full orchestra, and thereafter isolated on clarinet and a pair of oboes. the orchestra’s three trombones are at the other end of the flutes’ quiet introduction, sending the whole thing flying. it is once again taken up by the rest orchestra; this back and forth---of a kindling on solo instrument that is set ablaze by orchestra---is the structure of the dialogue between theme and development throughout the symphony. but unlike the usual scheme of suggestion by solo instrument thereupon developed in the rest of the movement, it’s moreso as if the horns are reminding the orchestra of a melody it knows very well, but has forgotten. (it’s in that same spirit, for example, that Friedrich Nietzsche writes his books. not as instructions to a student, but as reminders of psychological facts hitherto available but seldom recognized).

the second movement too begins with a doleful theme but this time on english horn (which is qualitatively warmer and more humid than the oboe). this theme passes thereunto flute with a higher, almost whistling tone. before coming back to oboe, that theme is hyphenated by a development on violins. on from there an unruly burgeoning transfixes the string section before dissolving into pizzicato, aided by a lyrical turn on the lighter wind instruments. the whole movement is a procession of an elegiac melody held between violins, cellos and horns---and restrained by the gravity of it’s tempo setting: Largo.

all of that and much more, and we’d still only have reached the bottom of the second movement…



Funk and Wagnalls Recording   // Antonin Dvorak // Symphony No.9 “The New World”

Hamburg Pro Musica Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hans Jurgen Walther.

Symphony No.6

  • Adagio -- Allegro Molto

  • Largo

  • Scherzo: Molto Vivace -- Poco Sostenuto

  • Allegro con fuoco

Intimately associated with the ecstasy-producing rite of rhythmic movement is the ecstasy-producing rite of rhythmic sound. Music is as vast as human nature and has something to say to me and women on every level of their being, from the self-regardingly sentimental to the abstractly intellectual, from the merely visceral to the spiritual. In one of its innumerable forms music is a powerful drug, partly stimulant and partly narcotic, but wholly alterative. No man, however highly civilized, can listen for very long to African drumming, or Indian chanting, or Welsh hymn-singing, and retain intact his critical and self-conscious personality. It would be interesting to take a group of the most eminent philosophers from the best universities, shut them up in a hot room with Moroccan dervishes or Haitian voodooists, and measure, with a stopwatch the strength of their psychological resistance to the effects of rhythmic sound. Would the Logical Positivists be able to hold out longer than the Subjective Idealists? Would the Marxists prove tougher than the Thomists or the Vedanists? What a fascinating, what a fruitful field for experiment! Meanwhile, all we can safely predict is that, if exposed long enough to the tom-toms and the singing, every one of our philosophers would end by capering and howling with the savages. “” aldous huxley in the epilogue to The Devils of Loudun

(third and fourth movements)

‘Warm Day’ by Anatoli Levitin, 1957

‘Warm Day’ by Anatoli Levitin, 1957

On the spiritual level most human beings suffer from the equivalent of asthma, but are only very obscurely and fitfully aware that they are living in a state of chronic asphyxiation. A few, however, know themselves for what they are---nonbreathers. Desperately they pant for air; and if at last they contrive to fill their lungs, what an unspeakable blessedness! “” aldous huxley, The Devils of Loudun

the gumption, incessant inventiveness, sheer fucking intensity of this brief Scherzo is, to the borrow words used by sylvia plath do describe the reticence of a shrewd spinster’s shock at the sudden arrival of spring: “a burgeoning /Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits/ Into vulgar motley”.... the theme introduced---again of flutes (and echoed on oboe)---is indeed that of an unruly burgeoning, the crackling of the hoarfrost that persists from too prolonged a winter. the timpani provides the rumbling crescendo of this short phrase, crashing down like an ice-pick… “what an unspeakable blessedness!” .

there is a brief intermission of a waltzing theme on the now-unified duo of flute and oboe (or is that english horn) that is then repeated on a pair of clarinets---with the bassoon, as always, in a tall distance. but the waltz evaporates with the onset of the return of that unruly and burgeoning theme, this time fully fledged by the entire string section and punctuated intermittently with notes on the triangle. a bit more back and forth as the theme is volleyed between sections of the orchestra and the movement ends abruptly, like the firing of a slingshot.

How she longed for winter then!-

Scrupulously austere in its order

Of white and black

Ice and rock; each sentiment within border,

And heart's frosty discipline

Exact as a snowflake.

But here - a burgeoning

Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits

Into vulgar motley-

A treason not to be borne; let idiots

Reel giddy in bedlam spring;

She withdrew neatly. “” sylvia plath, Spinster

instead to taking up that spirit of spring---it’s vulgar motley---the ‘spinster’ builds around her a ‘Such a barricade of barb and check’ that no well-meaning courter could hope to penetrate with “With curse, fist, threat /Or love, either.” and that’s as far as any similarity between that poem and this symphony can travel, for the fourth movement is the opposite of withdrawing neatly. cast in the setting of the fourth movement, we’d instead find that same spinster running towards the vulgar motley of moss and mud with arms wide open: trumpets and the trio of trombone are now at the forefront of the action, with strings scribbling furiously in the periphery. in and among this bombastic shuffle instruments, the flutes reminds us of its theme from the second movement and behemoth is tamed momentarily

in its character i’m reminded by this fourth symphony of another of sibelius’ works, this time it’s the third movement of his Violin Concerto in D Minor. Nicknamed famously by musicologist donald tovey as ‘a polonaise for polar bears’, indeed it’s that same animal that ten years earlier found it’s more mediterranean  iteration in dvorak’s Allegro con fuoco.

(excerpt from week35, 2018)

i’ve decided i have nothing new to say. what i really mean: inasmuch as it is new, it can’t be said.  i’d sooner give words to my meat and potato thoughts than to any brazen, furnished idea…. perhaps that might be the final concession of eccentricity: consistency, steadiness, a fanatic devotion to every kind of beige instinct, a fashionista for every plaid aesthetic. ---if only i paid attention during those classes in high school when they were trying to convince us of the magic of photoshop, i might be able now to edit myself into the background of some diy printout of van gogh’s the potato eaters—. everywhere i look in that painting i get this unsettling intimation of morning, of tilling, of sweaty brows and the long etcetera of getting started. i look up from that painting and i want to jump up and plant the very next thing i set my eyes on! but i’ve never done anything more than yard work… perhaps this is new: whatever the point is, what’s the point if it can’t make it out if it’s own generation (that’s nothing new, but has it even been said? “” excerpt from week35, 2018

truth be told i’m still not sure who it is i’m writing the blog for. that i started doing so, a year ago, was the necessary conclusion to the challenge against ‘knowing your audience’: what does it matter...