Symphony No. 9 (“New World”) in E Minor, Op 95 (1893)
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, whose early career was given a boost by the older Johannes Brahms, had a strong connection with folk music, especially that of Moravia and Bohemia. By the age of fifty, his fame had grown enough that the newly formed National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City hired him as director. During his short three years in America, he came in contact with Native American and African American music and wrote newspaper articles about how these traditions could form the basis of an American national musical style.
While in New York, he was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Society to write a symphony, and in 1893 his Symphony “from the New World” was given a very successful premiere. It has now become one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire. Many commentators have noted that the abundant folk-like melodies have elements of both indigenous American music and Bohemian music, betraying the composer’s homesickness.
First movement: After a somber introduction, the movement proper begins with a rising figure in the horns, the first of three main themes. The third of these bears a strong resemblance to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (minus the first two notes of the spiritual). What follows is a conventional development and recapitulation of the themes.
Second movement: The brass section begins with a series of mysterious chords which give way to the famous English horn melody. Other wistful themes follow, and before the final return of the English horn there is a triumphant full-orchestra passage in which the main theme of the first movement reappears, the cross-movement recurrence of themes being a common technique among of Romantic Period composers of symphonies.
Third movement: The gently propulsive figure in the woodwinds soon becomes a pounding dance in the full orchestra. The tempo calms a bit as gentler dance themes ensue. The return of the opening theme leads to another high point during which themes from previous movements return.
Fourth movement: Trumpets and horns introduce the assertive main theme, the repeated cadences of which lead to a second theme made up of boisterous triplets. A more serene clarinet melody is followed by yet another loud and energetic theme, concluding the presentation of the main material of the movement. The development section brings in themes from the preceding three movements, so by the tie of the “home stretch” part of the symphony we are hearing a musical culmination of much of what has gone on before.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26 (1921)
Ukrainian-born Prokofiev spent much of the time following the 1917 revolution outside of his country, but was welcomed back as a hero in 1932. Most of the rest of his career was spent going in and out of the good graces of the Soviet government. Pianist William Hueholt offers the following reflection on Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3:
“Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto is an instantly appealing work––seemingly made to be enjoyed by a whole audience in a single delicious gulp. Yet it is also one of those rare works that is undimmed by familiarity. Those melodies––and what melodies they are!––are somehow elusive. After one hearing, it seems as though you could whistle them. But how does that part go again? Just as soon as you think you grasp where Prokofiev is leading you, whoosh: the bottom falls out, the music swoops away in another direction entirely.
The piece is, for the pianist, full of both fun and frustration. There is no mystery here as to the composer’s intent; Prokofiev is out to get you. This is not a virtuoso showpiece––it’s all about the composer, despite the reams of brilliant, flashy writing. His personality comes across so strongly that at times he almost feels like a physical presence. No matter how quick you are, Prokofiev the chess master is always one step ahead.
That is why the opening of the concerto is some of the most striking music he ever composed. The theme is presented by solo clarinet, then doubled by another, then joined by the whole orchestra in a single long sweep. It is startlingly simple music, a non sequitur; perhaps a lesser composer would have started the concerto somewhere else. But it lingers sweetly, through all the acerbic wit and glibness to follow. I think it is a glimpse into Prokofiev’s soul. And what a soul it is.”
Researched and written by Joan Olsson