The last live performance I attended before last year’s lockdown was excerpts from Nkeiru Okoye’s enthralling 2014 opera, “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line of Freedom.” The score takes the listener on a journey through black musical styles such as spirituals, jazz, blues and gospel.
“I am Moses, the liberator,” announces Harriet in her last aria, pistol in hand, as she urges an exhausted man to keep running towards freedom. “You carry on or you die.”
With its themes of survival and liberation, Okoye’s work would represent a fitting opening for the relaunch of an opera company after the pandemic. But the American classical music industry has too often preferred familiarity and homogeneity to the liberating power of different voices.
In order to overcome this inertia, we have to face a work that has left an indelible mark on music in this country: Antonin Dvorak’s symphony “New World”. Fully grasping the complex legacy of this classic would allow us to go beyond and explore new avenues for artists of color.
In 1893, the year the symphony was first performed, Dvorak argued in print that black musical idioms should form the basis of an American classical style – not a completely new position, but far from the norm of the time. Some white musicians were so scandalized that they accused reporters of misrepresenting Dvorak’s ideas. Of course, he meant exactly what he said, for he consistently repeated his views and ended up adding indigenous American music to his recommendations.
Dvorak was true to his word in the “New World”. After completing the symphony, he stated in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that he had studied certain songs from black traditions until he was “thoroughly imbued with their properties” and “felt able to create a musical image that corresponds to those properties and take part in it. “Musical gestures inspired by these songs permeate the piece, such as the melodic outline of” Swing Low, Sweet Chariot “in the first movement and the famous, plaintive Largo theme in the second movement, which is often referred to as a direct quote from a spiritual – but that was actually worded later and turned into a spiritual goin ‘home.
In line with the then prevailing policy of segregationist Jim Crow, several white critics leaned back to deny the influence of blacks on the “New World” – despite Dvorak’s own words – as if the piece’s place in the national musical structure was of African origin would rule out. Black writers, on the other hand, recognized the importance of his advocacy. Richard Greener, a former dean of what is now the Howard University School of Law, suggested in 1894 that if black musicians follow Dvorak’s recommendations, they “become taller than the legislature” – a clear challenge to the prevailing social order.
Composers of various races, including R. Nathaniel Dett, Amy Beach, Henry Gilbert, Florence Price, Dennison Wheelock, John Powell, and Nora Holt, followed in Dvorak’s footsteps in the first quarter of the 20th century, writing a cascade of pieces on appeal black or indigenous folk styles.
White composers were often praised for their music’s commitment to these idioms, which often included direct quotations. For example, a reviewer for Musical America magazine wrote that Powell’s “Rhapsodie Nègre” had a “wild, almost brutal polyphonic climax” that gradually led to a more peaceful slow section based on a lyric phrase with Dvorakian loveliness. But white writers attacked black composers like Florence Price and William Dawson for using similar approaches.
When Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1934, another writer for Musical America wrote: “The influence of Dvorak is strong almost to the point of quotation, and when all is said and done, the Die The Bohemian composer’s symphony ‘From the New World’ is considered to be the best symphony ‘à la Nègre’ ever written. “
What was subtle and lovely with Powell was plagiarism with Dawson.
Dawson responded in The Pittsburgh Courier, a major black newspaper, to defend his stylistic choices. “Dvorak used negro idioms,” he said. “That is my language. It is the language of my ancestors, and my misfortune is that I was not born when this great writer came to America in search of material. “
Over the decades, the “New World” has become more and more popular, but never lost the aura of controversy about its connections to black music. A New York Philharmonic program annotator noted in 1940 that “Dvorak’s enthusiasm for Negro music overlooked the fact that there is a rich legacy of folk music in our diverse population, brought here by white colonists.” Around the same time, Olin Downes of the New York Times called the symphony’s origin and inspiration “a matter of academic argument.”
For many black musicians, the “New World” was on the rise precisely because of their ties to the African diaspora. In June 1940, a little over a year after Billie Holiday’s anti-lynch protest song “Strange Fruit” was released, Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic premiered the heartbreaking Stills “And They Lynched Him on a Tree”. A dark English horn solo at the beginning of the piece reminded one of the famous “New World” Largo, who immediately preceded him on the program.
After Rodzinski had prevented violinist Everett Lee from auditioning for the Philharmonic because of his race, Lee founded one of the first racially integrated orchestras in the country, the Cosmopolitan Symphony Society, and became its conductor. In its third season, 1951, he programmed Dvorak’s Ninth, which he later staged in an illustrious career spanning almost seven decades in engagements around the world.
At the height of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, a group that included conductor Benjamin Steinberg and composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson formed another large integrated orchestra in New York, the Symphony of the New World – an optimistic reference to Dvorak. When Everett Lee returned from Europe to conduct the group in 1966, his program included his namesake and favorite: the New World symphony. And the piece has remained an integral part of the repertoire of many other prominent black conductors, including A. Jack Thomas, Rudolph Dunbar, Dean Dixon, Jeri Lynne Johnson, Thomas Wilkins and Michael Morgan.
Over the past 50 years, the “New World” may have become the cornerstone of epoch-making American orchestral concerts abroad, including the Philadelphia Orchestra’s China tour in 1973 and the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea in 2008. Ensembles, however, rarely dated partnered with pieces by living color composers; Instead, Dvorak alone becomes the international spokesperson for the entire multicultural American experience.
That should change. To begin with, organizations should reject the uncritical appreciation of white composers of the past who have appropriated black or indigenous musical styles – for example Dvorak or George Gershwin – as if programming their works was free for composers of color, past and present.
Like Okoye. Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has its strengths, but in contrast, Okoye’s deeply researched opera gives singers ample opportunity to grapple with our national past while being relieved of the burden of embodying distorted stereotypes. Okoye’s impressive Black Bottom, premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at its annual Classical Roots celebration last March, is one of the most fascinating musical portraits in black history in the repertoire available. (The performance was a particularly memorable moment for an artist who attributes her decision to pursue a career in composition in part to the tradition of inclusivity of the Detroit orchestra.)
Beloved and moving symphony “New World” will also have a safe place in the programs in the future. But Dvorak and the white composers who followed in his footsteps shouldn’t be the loudest voices speaking on behalf of all Americans.
At the Detroit Symphony’s first Classical Roots celebration in 1978, conductor Paul Freeman programmed the “New World” with music by Hale Smith, William Grant Still and José Maurício Nunes Garcia – a rich musical cross-section of living and historical black composers from different backgrounds Backgrounds. In order to continue to count on Dvorak’s legacy, Detroit has commissioned a play by James Lee III, which will be premiered next season alongside the “New World”. Lee’s work “Amer’ican” presents a lavish tapestry with musical images drawn from over six centuries of indigenous and black history.
Lee said in an interview that he found it “quite enjoyable” to work with Dvorak to weave black and indigenous musical materials into one work. According to the notes accompanying the piece, it ends with “music depicting memories of unbridled freedom and exhilaration”.
Lee added that his work had been juxtaposed with Dvorak by other orchestras, but that in Detroit he would join a tradition of genuine creative dialogue between past and present.
“Being programmed with Dvorak’s music is nothing new to me,” he said. “But this case is special.”
Douglas W. Shadle is Associate Professor of Musicology at Vanderbilt University and author of the book “Antonin Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony”.