Dvořák's "New World" Symphony

Program Notes

Ballet music by Samuel Barber—written at the behest of the great Martha Graham—opens today’s concert, followed by one of Prokofiev’s last works, the Sinfonia concertante, written for the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. After intermission, we’ll hear one of the most beloved works in the orchestral canon, Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.

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Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Opus 23a

Samuel Barber
(Born 9 March 1910; West Chester, Pennsylvania; Died 23 January 1981; New York, New York)

Composed: 1945-46 (ballet); 1947 (suite); 1955 (3rd version)

First performance: 2 February 1956; New York, New York (3rd version)

Last MSO performance: September 1995; Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, tom tom, triangle, whip, xylophone), harp, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 13 minutes

In the early 1940s, Martha Graham (1894-1991)—the esteemed American modern dancer and choreographer—was a frequent guest at Capricorn, the Mt. Kisco, NY home shared by Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. When Graham was invited by Columbia University to present a new work for the Second Annual Festival of Contemporary Music, she asked Barber to compose the score. For the subject of the ballet, the two agreed upon Euripides’ Medea; Barber’s music, however, would undergo two transformations before he was completely satisfied with it.

A month before the ballet’s premiere, the composer handed the choreographer the music, scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments. (Copland’s Appalachian Spring, written for Graham in 1944, had used the same number.) Medea had its first performance on 10 May 1946 at Columbia. Early the next year, Barber fashioned the piece into a seven-movement, 23-minute suite for full orchestra; Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra unveiled it on 4 December 1947. When the composer included the Medea suite on a program of his music in Frankfurt in 1951, he was astonished that the German musicians favored it over the Adagio for Strings, the Violin Concerto, and the Second Symphony.

In 1955, Barber gleaned excerpts from the suite to create one continuous movement, renaming it Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. He expanded the orchestra considerably, but reduced the length to c. 14 minutes. “The revision, more focused and strident in tone,” writes biographer Barbara Heyman, “suggests that Barber may have been eager to break away from his image as a lyricist with appeal for only conservative audiences. It is a very modern, compelling, 20th-century piece of music.” As with the ballet, Barber dedicated the published score to Martha Graham. Its preface includes the following “program”:

Tracing her emotions from her tender feelings towards her children, through her mounting suspicions and anguish at the husband’s betrayal and her decision to avenge herself, the piece increases in intensity to close in the frenzied Dance of Vengeance of Medea, the Sorceress descended from the Sun God.

Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a was premiered on 2 March 1956 by Dimitri Mitropoulous and the New York Philharmonic. In 1958, the NYPO performed the work on nine programs in South America; in 1959, they played it in Belgium, Germany, Greece, and Russia.

Recommended recording: Yoel Levi, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Telarc)


Sinfonia concertante for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 125

Serge Prokofiev
(Born 23 April 1891; Sontsovka, Russia; Died 5 March 1953; Moscow, Russia)

Composed: 1950-52

First performance: 18 February 1952; Moscow, Russia

Last MSO performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle), celeste, strings

Approximate duration: 37 minutes

Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante, Op. 135, the second of the composer’s two cello concertos, is essentially a re-working of his earlier E minor Concerto, Op. 58 (1933-38). It dates from the latter years of his life, an unhappy time bereft of joy and success, largely due to the notorious 1948 decree from Stalin—and his “cultural czar” Andrei Zhdanov—that attacked progressive elements in Russian art, and cruelly characterized Prokofiev’s entire œuvre as “alien to the Soviet people.” (This censure was lifted only in 1958, five years after Prokofiev’s death.) His health was not good, he had lost several close friends, and he made it a point to retreat from Moscow as much as possible. 

When legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) appeared on the musical scene around 1950, Prokofiev was inspired to repurpose his Op. 58. That work dates from a happy period in his life—the period of Alexander Nevsky, Peter and the Wolf, and Romeo and Juliet—when he was still working in western Europe and getting ready to settle back in Russia following years of being abroad. Originally produced under the title Concerto No. 2, it was premiered in Moscow in 1952. Published with the title Symphony-Concerto (or, more commonly, Sinfonia concertante), Rostropovich would go on to play it all over the world. Prokofiev died the following year, aged 61, ironically on the same day as his nemesis Stalin.

Making good on the “symphonic” implications of the title, Prokofiev casts the work in three big movements, all with a vast assortment of themes and tempos. The slow movement, a broad Andante, comes first. Note the four ascending pitches at its beginning, a theme also conspicuous in the master’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, whose lyricism is evident here. Later, the high strings softly descend the scale as the basses ascend to meet them.

The lengthy second movement, Allegro gusto, begins as a scherzo. The soloist is duly put through his paces, with occasional rude intrusions from the brass. When the tempo eventually eases, a expressive theme emerges and leads to a cadenza. As the tempo becomes ever faster, there’s an organic return to the energetic music that opened the movement. Earlier themes are restated, and the cellist is afforded more tightrope display.

The soloist’s lyrical melody somberly opens the finale (Andante con moto); several variations follow. A jaunty bassoon melody announces the middle section. The principal theme is restated as a chorale, after which the cello duets amiably with the celesta. At work’s end, the soloist floats ever higher, “as if spiraling up to the very summit of a domed roof” (Rostropovich), halted only by the timpanist’s final blows.

Prokofiev dedicated the Sinfonia concertante to Rostropovich. The redoubtable pianist Sviatoslav Richter was on the podium for the premiere, one of the few times—perhaps the only one—he ever conducted. The work was a favorite of Shostakovich, and inspired him to write his Cello Concerto No. 1 (1959) for Rostropovich. According to the great cellist, the younger composer’s recording of the Sinfonia concertante was completely worn down from being played so frequently. “It omitted only a kind of hiss,” he reported.

Recommended recording: Truls Mørk; Paavo Järvi, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Virgin Classics)


Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Opus 95, [old No. 5] “From the New World”

Antonín Dvořák
(Born 8 September 1841; Nelahozeves, Czech Republic; Died 1 May 1904; Prague, Czech Republic)

Composed: 1892-93

First performance: 16 December 1893; New York, New York

Last MSO performance: March 2013; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, triangle), strings

Approximate duration: 40 minutes

At the behest of Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, Antonin Dvořák came to this country from his native Bohemia in the autumn of 1892. Mrs. Thurber, the wife of a New York millionaire wholesale grocer—and self-appointed cultural maven—had invited the composer to become the director of New York City’s National Conservatory of Music. His arrival was planned to coincide with celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America. Mrs. Thurber’s conservatory operated on philanthropic principles, and she held the purse strings. For a yearly salary of $15,000, Dvořák was expected to give lessons in composition and instrumentation to the most talented students three days a week, and on the other three days to rehearse the choir and orchestra. Since Thurber wanted a figurehead rather than an administrator, Dvořák was expected to be available for business consultations with her, if called upon. (By 1895, a homesick Dvořák was back home for good, contentedly surrounded by his family and again teaching composition at the Prague Conservatory.)

Dvořák spent his 1893 summer holiday with his family in Spillville, Iowa—in a Czech community where he could relax with his own countrymen and be free of the constant need to speak English, a language he never really mastered. Just prior, he had put the finishing touches on his E minor symphony—better known as “From the New World.” Publication was expedited when the composer’s good friend Johannes Brahms offered to correct the proofs. Its Carnegie Hall premiere, conducted by Anton Seidl, was a huge success. When the Symphony No. 9 was first presented in Vienna (1895), Brahms sat with Dvořák in the director’s box. “I have never had such a success in Vienna,” the composer later stated. 

The “New World” Symphony also generated lengthy discussions as to whether the composer had appropriated Bohemian, Native American, or African-American themes as the basis for his new work. Dvořák eventually felt compelled to settle the matter by flatly denying that any folk music was used verbatim in the symphony. “I tried to write only in the spirit of these national American melodies,” he explained.

For many concertgoers, this Symphony is so beloved and so well-known that little explanation is needed. Here, however, are a few highlights to listen for:

I. The melancholy introduction—some claim this depicts Dvořák’s homesickness, others think it evokes the wide, open spaces of the American West—is soon shattered by the vigorous horn theme that outlines an E minor chord. This motif will reappear in the other three movements. Later comes a melody that suggests to some listeners “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

II. The Allegro molto ended decidedly in E minor. The well-known Largo is in D-flat major. Dvořák employs seven sonorous chords that take us there seamlessly. William Arms Fisher wrote the words “Goin’ Home” to the famous English horn melody. It is said that Dvořák chose that instrument over the clarinet because its timbre reminded him of the vocal color of Harry T. Burleigh—the great African-American collector and arranger of spirituals, and a student of Dvořák. Near the movement’s end, the motto theme loudly reasserts itself, but the English horn restores calm and the Largo ends very softly, with double basses alone.

III. According to Dvořák, the music of the scherzo was inspired by the feast and dance of Pau-Puk Keewis in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” A motif from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony introduces the dance.

IV. A powerful brass theme opens the Allegro con fuoco; a gentler clarinet melody soon follows. By re-introducing the principal themes of the previous three movements early in the development section, Dvořák is later able to seamlessly combine them into a brilliant climax. Listen: You’ll even hear the stately chord progression that opened the Largo.

Recommended recording: George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Classical)