In 1892, Czech composer Antonín Dvorák came to the United States. He came at the invitation of a Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, a wealthy music lover who wanted him to head up her latest pet project—a conservatory of music meant to rival the famous conservatories of Europe.
Dr. Dvorák, already known for his use of traditional Czech musical elements in his compositions, arrived in the New World to find it rich with ethnic music. He was particularly impressed with the spirituals of the black slaves:
I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed with this idea and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. . . . In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. . . . There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.
Though his comments were controversial in his own day, Dvorák’s insight can hardly be lost on the modern music fan. The black slaves’ spirituals gave rise to the “blues,” and blues, in turn, spawned a host of other musical genres. Little popular music since 1900 can claim independence from the influence of the spiritual. Ted Gioia names “a few: gospel, . . . soul, rap, minstrel songs, Broadway musicals, ragtime, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, samba, cumbia, calypso, even some contemporary operatic and symphonic music.” Dvorák said, “Apparently I am to show [America] the path to the promised land and the kingdom of a new, independent art; in short, to create national music.” Dvorák would never know how successful he had been at identifying the roots of American music.
While in America, Dvorák wrote what would become perhaps his most popular work, his Symphony no. 9 (“From the New World”). “It is the spirit of the Negro . . . melodies which I have endeavoured to reproduce in my new symphony,” he said of the composition. Dvorák’s themes are thought to have been inspired largely by spirituals he learned from Harry Burleigh, a black man who studied composition under Dr. Dvorák at the American conservatory.
Leon Botstein suggests that Dvorák’s influence on his students at the National Conservatory may have begun roots of an American musical style that would later be “audible in the music of Copland, Gershwin, and Ellington.” Of those three, Duke Ellington was a true jazz composer. Aaron Copland and George Gershwin arguably were not, but certainly showed the influence of jazz in their music. Whether or not the music of these quintessentially American composers was really of Dvorák’s lineage, the common ancestry of this music and Dvorák’s New World symphony is clear.
It is not surprising that Dvorák’s New World symphony bears a close family resemblance to jazz music, since they are of a common extraction. The Largo movement in particular, famous for its distinctive opening theme introduced by the English horn, is the symphony’s most raw application of spiritual melody, and shows the closest kinship to jazz. It is interesting to note that jazz pianist Art Tatum, and other jazz musicians since, have appropriated this theme as a jazz tune in itself. (Sources disagree whether the theme existed as a song called “Goin’ Home” before Dvorák wrote his symphony, or whether the title and lyrics were added later to an original theme, but Dvorák insisted that all melodies in the 9th Symphony were his own, merely inspired by existing tunes.)
The “Goin’ Home” theme is twelve measures long, with three four-bar phrases, an immediately apparent parallel with the common twelve-bar blues form. Further evidence that this similarity is no coincidence is revealed through harmonic analysis. The movement from tonic to subdominant in the fifth bar is a defining characteristic of the blues form.
The melody of this theme is based on a major pentatonic scale (although the seventh scale degree does appear in the second phrase). The pentatonic scale is traditionally a favorite melodic device of jazz and blues musicians. According to John Clapham, Dvorák’s visit to the United States provided a “powerful stimulus” to use the pentatonic scale in writing themes. The spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is said to have been Dvorák’s favorite, and its strict pentatonicism seems almost quoted in a theme from the first movement.
Another common trait inherited by Dvorák’s Largo theme and jazz music is the uneven “swing” rhythm, represented by Dvorák with the dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note. In the second phrase, the clarinets play a harmony line to the English horn melody, but their part pits “straight” eighth notes against the dotted-eighth/sixteenth pattern, further emphasizing the melody’s irregular rhythm. An American music historian wrote that Dvorák had been “greatly intrigued by the lively niggerish swing of American popular music.” Though the language of the comment is disturbing to modern sensibilities, it intimates that Dvorák’s use of swing-style rhythm was intentional.
Call-and-response, another legacy of the spiritual songs inherited by jazz, also appears in Dvorák’s Largo movement. A striking example is the final measure of the English horn’s theme, immediately echoed by the clarinet.
John Clapham points out that the leading tone (B#) is conspicuously absent; the B-natural is used prominently and without apology. Jazz composers and musicians tend to favor the Dorian mode for expression of minor tonalities. Changing subdivision of a constant pulse, another favorite device of jazz musicians, is also evident here. In measures 51-52 alone, the pulse is divided into two, three, four, and five parts.
A third theme, introduced in measure 54, is accompanied by a pizzicato “walking” line in the string bass. Though the walking bass ubiquitous in jazz today did not develop until the 1930’s, the similarity here is striking and perhaps telling. The rhythmic drive of the walking bass line is a perfect foil to spiritual-influenced melody, as Dvorák and any jazz bassist would agree.
Dvorák’s New World symphony foreshadowed the overwhelming influence of the black slave songs in forming a truly American musical style. Jack Sullivan quotes former president Bill Clinton as saying that jazz is “America’s classical music,” and goes on to point out that such an idea has been “taken for granted by European composers for nearly a century.” Dvorák’s belief that American music would grow from the songs of slaves proved true.
New World Symphony: Antonín Dvorák, 1893 [online document] (accessed 31 May 2002); available from http://www.artsworld.com/music-dance/works/m-o/new-world-symphony-antonin-dvorak.html; Internet.