ABOUT THE PROGRAM “From the New World”
by Roger Kaza
It’s curious that 400 years after Columbus, Europeans were still referring to North America as the New World. Undoubtedly it was new in comparison with Europe, its lands and resources yet to be fully exploited. But by the end of the 19th century, the European immigrants, now Americans, had usurped those lands and resources from Native Americans. Perhaps the term “New World” paradoxically embodied a nostalgia for the old—what once was, a continent whose pre-contact indigenous inhabitants were wholly unencumbered by European-imposed values and beliefs. In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau idealized Native Americans, calling them “noble savages” living in a state of nature. This view culminated a century later in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, the inspiration for the opening and closing works on tonight’s program.
Longfellow’s hero Hiawatha is an Ojibwe warrior living on the south shore of Lake Superior. The poem recounts his pleas for peace among tribes and his love for his bride, Minnehaha. Antonín Dvořák had read Hiawatha in a Czech translation and remarked that the second movement of his New World Symphony was a "sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera ... which will be based upon Longfellow's Hiawatha." Dvořák added that the third movement scherzo was "suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance."
Dvořák, who lived in America for three years, never completed a cantata or opera about Hiawatha. But his younger contemporary, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, took on the challenge, and his trilogy of cantatas proved to be wildly popular throughout the first part of the 20th century. Coleridge-Taylor, an English mixed-race composer who never met his Sierra Leone father, may have identified with Hiawatha’s quest to find his own father in the early chapters of the poem. Tonight’s Overture is a small sampling of the larger work. Native Americans were not the only inspiration for these two works. Dvořák’s New World Symphony is also well-known for its use of melodies and spirituals from Black enslaved persons. The most famous tune, the second theme of the first movement, bears a striking resemblance to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” In a similar vein, Coleridge-Taylor used a variation on the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” as the main theme of his Hiawatha Overture. Aside from these allusions, is there anything of a general musical language which connects Dvořák’s and Coleridge-Taylor’s work to the New World? Neither composer was an ethnomusicologist, yet attentive listeners will note the use of pentatonic (five-note) scales, unusual modes, and syncopated melodies which feature short/long note patterns, similar to the “Scotch Snap.” In addition to these specific traits (which should be noted can be found in many other musical cultures), maybe the enduring appeal of these works comes from the feelings of mystery and otherness they evoke.
And what of Franz Joseph Haydn? No amount of verbal wrangling can shoehorn his rococo first violin concerto into the theme of this program. And yet, the young Haydn, writing this work in the 1760s, could hardly have been unaware of political events fomenting in the New World. The French and Indian War (1754-1763), with the English and French and their native allies fighting for territory in the Ohio Valley and Canada, became an impetus for the subsequent Seven Years War in Europe—called the world’s first global conflict—in which Haydn’s native Austria was a major player.
Haydn is the quintessential Austrian composer; he even wrote the country’s national anthem. Dvořák, the foremost Czech composer, had hoped that America would find inspiration from his New World Symphony and discover a musical voice of its own, escaping the derivative European models found in earlier music of Chadwick, MacDowell, and others. Coleridge-Taylor, called the “Black Mahler” when he visited America, may have had similar hopes. Both Dvořák and Coleridge-Taylor envisioned American composers using indigenous and formerly enslaved peoples’ music as a foundation for a national style of music. It would take decades for this hope to be realized, and some would argue that jazz, not classical music, is its ultimate expression. So “From the New World” is an apt way to summarize tonight’s program, with strong emphasis on the word From. Both Dvořák and Coleridge-Taylor were Europeans, outsiders looking in. These are musical postcards…from the New World. .