Dvořák’s unfulfilled wish: “New World” Symphony as basis for an American classical style

Posted on: March 18, 2021

A viola part used at the 1893 premiere of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, which drew on Black and Indigenous American musical idioms. Photo: Carnegie Hall Susan W. Rose Archives

“We must confront a work that has left indelible marks on music in this country: Antonín Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony,” writes Douglas Shadle in Wednesday’s (3/17) New York Times. “In 1893, the year of the symphony’s premiere, Dvořák argued in print that Black musical idioms should form the basis of an American classical style…. He consistently reiterated his views, eventually adding Indigenous American music to his recommendations…. For many Black musicians … the ‘New World’ was galvanizing precisely because of its ties to the African diaspora…. Over the last 50 years, the ‘New World’ has become perhaps the keystone in epochal American orchestral concerts abroad…. But ensembles have rarely paired it with pieces by living composers of color…. That should change…. [Nkeiru] Okoye’s evocative ‘Black Bottom,’ premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra … last March, is one of the most engrossing musical portraits of Black history in the available repertoire…. Detroit has commissioned a piece by James Lee III that will premiere alongside the ‘New World’ next season. Lee’s work, ‘Amer’ican,’ presents a lavish tapestry of musical images drawn from over six centuries of Indigenous and Black history.”