Antonin Dvorak wrote his Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," soon after arriving in America in 1893. A yearning melody from the second movement took on a new life as a popular American song that continues to be reinvented.
The theme played by a solo English horn, which begins the second (largo) movement, at one time spawned debate as to its origin. Was it a spiritual? A gospel hymn? A Czech folk tune? Or most likely, something new—informed by all of these?
Dvorak had come to New York City to be the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, a conservatory founded in 1885 with a goal of cultivating American music. Dvorak soon began working on the symphony, which he said reflected his "impressions and greetings from the New World." He brought to it his studies of spirituals and Native American music, as well as his own Czech culture.
Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin talks about Dvorak's masterful blend of melodies, "from the quintenssential American idea (especially from the Europeans' perspective) of great spaces and nature, and a kind of nostalgic feeling from Dvorak, feeling lonely here in America, longing to go back to his European roots."
To his home.
Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 was premiered by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on December 16th, 1893. The composer died in Prague in 1904.
One of Dvorak's students, William Arms Fisher, put words to the longing melody from the second movement. He called the new song, "Goin' Home," and had it published 1922. Fisher died in 1948, but the song lived on.
Singer Jan Clayton performed it in the 1948 movie, The Snake Pit.
It was famously sung at a 1958 concert by Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall.
More recently Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble recorded the song with an American banjo player, a Chinese sheng player, and singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn singing lyrics in English and Mandarin.
The transformation of Dvorak's music is a fitting legacy for his symphony about the New World, a work with a message that transcends any one culture.
"Instead of being something that's about only one aspect of our world," says Yannick Nézet-Séguin, "it's something that gives a message of unity."