Symphony No. 9 in E minor “From the New World”, op. 95
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings
III. Scherzo: Molto vivace
IV. Allegro con fuoco
In the story of American music, Harry T. Burleigh and Antonín Dvořák have long been inseparable. But as the role of Black musicians in classical tradition has changed—often too slowly, or sometimes not at all—the way we understand Burleigh and Dvořák’s relationship and their music has shifted, too. Burleigh has long been remembered as the student aide to Dvořák during his time as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City (1892-1895). An accomplished baritone, he introduced Dvořák to the African-American spirituals he learned from his mother and his maternal grandfather, who had been enslaved but purchased his own freedom. In doing so, Burleigh unknowingly precipitated the great Symphony No. 9 From the New World and led Dvořák to his appreciation and advocacy of “Negro melodies” as the necessary source of a distinctly American classical music, or so the story goes. Burleigh became the exemplar of a redemptive narrative about the rise of a Black educated class. Dvořák became the pioneering figure who opened up a new avenue for American composers to find their own voices, free from European influence. The latter narrative in particular still holds an outsized place in contemporary music criticism. In 2018, as part of the “American Anthem” series, NPR’s Tom Huizenga called the New World Symphony a celebration of the “musical melting pot” and “a philosophy of inclusion rendered in music.” Like most myths, however, these stories obscure as much as they reveal.
While Burleigh did go on to be well known for his arrangements of African-American spirituals, he was equally prolific and skilled as a composer of concert songs, as well as some solo piano and chamber music suitable for the parlor. He was, in other words, a composer embedded in the mainstream of his time and familiar with a wide range of styles, historical and contemporary. But like many Black musicians before and after him—from the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Anne Brown, Paul Robeson, Florence Price, or Everett Lee—Burleigh had to balance his personal interests and ambitions with audience and critical expectations. Black musicians might pursue careers as opera singers, composers, instrumentalists, or conductors, but they would always be expected to turn at some point to ragtime, jazz, the blues, or spirituals. And although Burleigh was a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), he would always be Dvořák’s assistant.
Across the six movements of From the Southland, Burleigh blends many influences into a highly personalized work. Each piece sets a poem written by his wife, Louise Alston Burleigh, in a dialect that combines references to other poems and spirituals with her own turns of phrase. Her poetry is a patchwork of vivid images, shifting moods, and recognizable points of reference, such as the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” which her husband’s music captures in a combination of classical modes and popular materials.
Originally composed for solo piano with the poems printed as epigrams, From the Southland follows in the Romantic vein of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Overall, the musical language and the format are reminiscent of the kinds of character pieces, German Lieder, and parlor songs that would have been heard in the middle-class homes of the day. However, Horace Maxile has identified some less conservative choices, like colorful extended chords and non-functional harmonies, that, if not quite modernist, do show an awareness of contemporary developments.
Along with these classical elements, there are also abundant references to popular music. We might hear this dichotomy as echoing the double-coding of the spiritual, where mundane imagery often has a heavenly counterpart and Biblical stories serve as covers for expressions of Black experiences under slavery and Jim Crow. In “The Frolic”, we hear a jaunty cakewalk rhythm, and there are further syncopations, even a little bit of stride piano, in “A Jubilee.” In the fourth movement, Burleigh also quotes the minstrel song “Old Folks at Home” (1851) by Stephen Foster, a white songwriter who routinely borrowed from Black vernacular music. The theme of “homegoing” is prominent both in Foster’s song and in Louise Burleigh’s poem, although in her text, the destination is the heavenly home typical to the spiritual:
“Altho’ you see me go ‘long so,
Ma spirit’s boun‘ fo‘ de Hebbenly sho‘
Gwine walk right up to de golden do‘
To ma home in de New Jerusalem!”
This lyrical resonance between his wife’s text and what remained a well-known, frequently recorded song is the most obvious reason for the quotation. However, one cannot ignore that Burleigh is re-appropriating a tune from minstrelsy—a form that expropriated Black music, movement, and expression in order to deride Black people—and bending it to his own purposes. And in “A Jubilee”, that purpose is an expression of Black joy.
Burleigh also accomplishes the fusion of classical technique and Black music to which Dvořák had called American composers—and he does as thoroughly in a compact set of pieces as Dvořák did with an entire symphony. In “On Bended Knees” we hear an original melody from Burleigh in the first section, followed by a paraphrase of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in the second section. Given the shared pentatonic character and gently oscillating contour of both tunes, though, one could be forgiven for assuming both were quotations from spirituals. Burleigh has thoroughly absorbed the language of the African-American spiritual and recast it in a quintessential Romantic form, appropriate to either an American or European parlor. “A New Hidin’ Place” also combines American material with classical form. Burleigh quotes from the same two spirituals referenced in his wife's text, “My Lord What a Morning” and “The Rocks and Mountains”:
“My Lord, what a mornin’
When de stars begin to fall!
De rocks an’ de mountains shall all flee away;
But you shall have a new hidin’- place dat day.”
At the climax of the song and the work as a whole, we hear both melodies in counterpoint, creating a thickly-voiced, triumphant finale.
Juxtaposing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, also written during his time in New York, with the New World Symphony reveals something about the supposedly American character of the latter work. Apart from the obvious focus on virtuosic display and techniques particular to the cello in the concerto, the two pieces have a great deal in common. The orchestration is similarly resonant and colorful, featuring woodwind and French horn solos prominently, as well as bold brass chorales. The tendency toward straightforward lyricism is clearly inspired by folk song in both cases. There are also direct quotations from song in both works: the appearance of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the first movement of the symphony and the adaptation of Dvořák's own song, “Kéž duch můj sám” (“Leave Me Alone”), as the slower Andante section in the finale of the concerto. Practically all that differentiates the Czech nationalism of Dvořák’s choices in the Cello Concerto, or the earlier tone poem Má vlast (My Homeland), from the Symphony No. 9 is the use of the pentatonic scale.
The pentatonic harmony, plus the frequent pendular motion in Dvořák’s melodic writing, do give several themes in the New World Symphony a character similar to the spiritual. It was Burleigh himself who identified the closing theme of the first movement’s sonata form (first heard on flute) as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The central theme of the Largo second movement also sounds like a spiritual, although much like Burleigh’s writing in From the Southland, it is an inspirational rather than a direct borrowing. The similarity was clear enough, though, that another student of Dvořák’s, William Arms Fisher, later added text to the melody. “Goin’ Home” is comprised of Dvořák’s melody and his white student’s words, but it has been widely accepted as a spiritual and was even performed by Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall in 1958.
With the Symphony No. 9, Dvořák issued a charge to American composers: that “Negro melodies” and Indigenous American music “must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” Many composers did take up that mission, but as Douglas Shadle has shown, the response depended in large part on race—both the critic’s and the composer’s. Some white critics asserted, in direct contradiction to Dvořák’s own words, that the New World had nothing to do with Black music. On the other hand, Black writers expressed appreciation for his advocacy and saw a way forward for Black musicians. And while many critics praised white composers who followed in Dvořák’s footsteps, like John Powell with his Rhapsodie Nègre, they condemned similar works by Black composers, such as William L. Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, as derivative.
Still, Dvořák’s symphony remained a potent symbol of what was possible. When forming an integrated orchestra in the mid-1960s, conductor Benjamin Steinberg and composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson called their group the Symphony of the New World. And when Everett Lee returned from Europe to conduct that orchestra, he programmed Dvořák's New World, a favorite of his and generations of other Black conductors, from Rudolph Dunbar to Jeri Lynne Johnson. The New World Symphony remains a touchstone in American music, but its popularity on concert programs should not obscure Dvořák’s intent—that it be an invitation to new works that draw deeply on Black and Indigenous traditions. In heeding this call, we would also open the classical tradition to more voices and different facets of the American experience.