I turned on NPR this morning to hear the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. It was a nostalgic treat – I hadn’t listened to the work in a long time, and I remembered when my high school orchestra undertook all four movements during my sophomore year. The curiously prodding harmonies of the flutes and sweeping powerful lines of brass brought a lot back to my mind, most prominently the fact that the simple meditative melody was borrowed from a negro spiritual, one of the songs that shaped our country’s history.
I love the story of The New World Symphony, especially as Mark O’Connor tells it in his method books. Dvorak, one of the world’s first ethnomusicologists by today’s standards, was invited to America by the country’s leading composers to help them develop a “National” sound.
Countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary were spouting nationalistic music, seeking to find a unique sound from their homeland, using less influences from Western European musical practices. Dvorak and Bartok turned to the music of the native gypsies and the folksongs sung by the common man in the fields. Dvorak’s advice to the composers of America was in the same vein: look to the music of your native peoples, your working class, the Native American melodies and the Negro spirituals of the slaves. Their music is the backbone of your National music, just as their work is the backbone of your country. Look into this newly emerging Jazz – that is a sound completely original to a part of the United States. Now much more Nationalistic can you get?
The idea did not go over so well with the composers of the US at the time. They ignored Dvorak’s advice and sought other means to find their very own sound as a country. Dvorak was confused as to why they rejected the facts that were, he perceived, right in front of them: the native music of the country was NOT the white man’s orchestral music from Western Europe, but the songs sung on the plantations of the South. Unexpected, yes, but true to the theme of nationalistic music sweeping European countries off their feet.
Mark O’Connor touches upon this in his Manifesto, and in his historical background to the New World songs in his string method books. He also touches upon the idea that now that those prejudiced mentalities have started to fade, our country is finally free to pursue its very own National sound in a form of Americana Folk influences in orchestral music. Mark has taken a step in this direction himself, composing original symphonic works based on the fiddle tunes of his youth. The Fiddle Concerto, Double Violin Concerto, and the Improvised Violin Concerto, all have origins in the folk melodies of American history.
Something new is starting in American musical history. This is a new chapter of originally themed, American born and bred musical sounds and styles. Give a listen to the Folk, Fiddle, Bluegrass, Old-time, Appalachian, and otherwise ‘country’ style sounds emerging in our music, at the orchestral and small indie band level. In the years to come, who knows what original sounds will be emerging from our symphonies, our bands, our cities, our country? It could be something truly and uniquely American, from the core of our history and foundation.