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Program Notes – Opening Night with Gershwin

Welcome to the National Repertory Orchestra’s Opening Night. We begin the season with an all American program.  John Williams, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin might be seen as the American equivalent of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.  For good measure, we add a work by a Bohemian composer with strong American ties, Antonín Dvořák. Along with Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 (which we will hear in a few weeks), Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 is often described as a great American Symphony.

But first, a few words about the first half of this evening’s program.  Summon the Heroes, John William’s 1996 composition for the Centennial Celebration of the Modern Olympics is a perfect launching pad for an exciting season. It’s a bold fanfare from the prolific composer who has penned some of the most memorable film music in history.

This fanfare is answered by the comic Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein, written in 1956. Bernstein attempted, successfully, to do what George Gershwin had done years before—marry popular American sounds with classical music.

Following the success of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, Gershwin was commissioned to compose a full-blown piano concerto.  His previous works were those of a minimalist, short piano works and songs.  That background and lack of experience in putting together large-scale works is exposed in Concerto in F.  The concerto works with beautiful melodies and sweeping orchestration but it works in an odd sort of way.  The standard form is present—fast, slow, fast–but the three pieces are more like three medleys rather than three movements. Gershwin described them this way: “The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm.  It is quick and pulsating, representing the young and enthusiastic spirit of American life…The second movement has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere…The final movement reverts to the style of the first.  It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout.”  Still, in capable hands (and we have them tonight in Christopher Taylor), the whole thing comes together in a brash and energetic way that creates its own definition of concerto.  It simply stands alone, without apology.                                   

Antonín Dvořák arrived in New York in 1892, accepting a job as the director of the new National Conservatory of Music of America.  The challenge of creating such an auspicious entity was no doubt attractive, as was the prospect of earning 25 times as much as his salary at the Prague Conservatory.  Most of the serious music in America in the 1890s was dominated by the German School and Dvořák had very strong feelings about the lack of an American nationalistic movement.

It was during that tenure in New York that Dvořák fell in love with American spirituals and Native American music. Of the works written during that period byDvořák and others, Symphony No. 9 in e minor, “From the New Worldis certainly the outstanding triumph. The Symphony premiered December 16, 1893, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.  The day before the performance, Dvořák was quoted in the New York Herald: “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 colour.” Still, in the first movement, you might be able recognize a reference to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” And the very slow second movement is not based on an existing American theme but it sounds so much like a black spiritual that a former student of Dvořák’s wrote words for it and the spiritual “Goin’ Home” was born.  There was controversy from the beginning as to whether this is truly an “American Symphony.”  A close study easily finds as many melodies and themes influenced by his native Bohemian musical landscape as there are American roots. 

There is still discussion about whether this is American but the fact is, “The New World” has musical sounds that are unique and unlike anything else that he wrote.   And there is no dispute that it is one of the most spectacularly successful symphonies ever written.

While the composition was wildly successful, the business venture of the American Conservatory was decidedly less so, eventually being unable to live up to the commitment to Dvořák’s salary.  At the same time, his popularity in Europe was growing and he was homesick for Bohemia; he returned home in 1895 and resumed his professorship at the Prague Conservatory.

Written by Doug Adams