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*On this date in 1893, the renowned white-Czech composer Antonín Dvořák debuted the performance of his most famous symphony,
This classic recognized the significance of American Negro spirituals and their contributions to the culture of the United States. Dvořák came to America at the invitation of music patron and entrepreneur Jeanette Meyers Thurber in 1892. When she opened the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885, Thurber created a home for the development of American music. Unlike most institutions of the time, Thurber’s National Conservatory recruited talented musicians and composers regardless of sex, race, physical handicap, or financial limitations.
During his stay of three years, he became interested in the music of African and Native Americans when the critic Krehbiel brought it to his attention. After hearing Harry T. Burleigh sing spirituals, Dvorak was so impressed he decided to imitate the style of the spiritual in his own music. He left for Spillville, Iowa, where there was a Czech population, and began working on sketches for a symphony. Dvorak’s Fifth Symphony in E minor, Op. 95, was completed in 1892. Anton Seidl conducted the New York Philharmonic in the first performance on December 16, 1893.
In an interview published in the New York Herald, Dvorak said, “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here, I was impressed with the idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and various themes are the product of the soil. They are American. In the Negro melodies of America, I discovered all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, gracious, or what you will…. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot find a thematic source here.”
Dvorak modeled his thematic material after the Black spiritual with such great skill it is sometimes thought his melodies are of American origin. The theme of Swing Low Sweet Chariot runs throughout the first movement to symbolize the religious beliefs of the Black people and their hope of a new life. The famous English horn melody of the second movement displays all the melancholy and religious feelings of the Black Spiritual. The third and fourth movements also reflect Negro music.