Deconstructing the racial myths behind Dvořák's ‘New World Symphony’

Antonin Dvořák was a Czech composer that achieved worldwide fame for his romantic compositions. Wikimedia Commons

April 26, 2021

In his new book, Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony, musicologist Douglas Shadle tackles one of the most popular and celebrated American symphonies.

Douglas Shadle
Musicologist Douglas Shadle wants you to rethink the American music tradition.
Anne Rayner

Having been influenced by Native American and African American music, Dvořák saw the future of the great American symphony within nonclassical genres when he wrote his Symphony No. 9 in 1893. To a degree, he was correct. George Gershwin would compose another iconic American work, Rhapsody in Blue, in 1924, using a heavily jazz-influenced style that imitates the sounds of an urban landscape. This is similar to Dvořák’s idea, but, as Shadle points out, there are misconceptions about New World, especially its creation, performance and reception.

The New World Symphony, as Shadle puts it, has done harm as well as good. The relationship between Black music traditions and classical music had discourse going on for 10 or more years before Dvořák. The good is that he brought that question to national prominence and essentially forced many people who had never thought about the issue to reconsider. 

“This is where the feel-good story about the New World Symphony really falls apart,” the author says. “What ended up happening is people who had never thought about it [race] before ended up responding in these aggressively racist ways.” 

He noted that by-and-large, the initial reaction after it premiered was negative and continued to be so in certain corners of classical music for 40 to 50 more years. There is disagreement about whether he was even inspired by African American music, Shadle says. Dvořák’s international authority was good news for Black musicians who were trying to bring spirituals to the concert stage in the early 20th century, such as the Jubilee Singers and Harry Burleigh. It was like being given an international seal of approval.

Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony by Douglas Shadle
Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony by Douglas Shadle
Oxford Press

On the other side, there's a kind of appropriation and encouragement of non-Black people to use African American influences in their music. Shadle suggests that it became morally ambiguous because he's being supportive but also being a bit of a colonialist.

For example, he says, Gershwin is held up as one of the quintessential American composers who followed Dvořák's idea of fusing genres. Gershwin was hailed for blending jazz, a Black art form, and classical, a white art form. But when Black composers integrate idioms, they are still just falling back on their racial identity and heritage: A Black composer could never not be a Black composer. 

Gershwin contemporary Will Marion Cook, a Black student of Dvořák, also blended Black and white musical idioms. But he did not enjoy a full career in classical music due partly to racism. As Shadle puts it, holding up Gershwin as the best example of American composition excludes people of color. Intercultural exchanges done by Black composers were seen as second rate compared with Gershwin in the popular imagination and conventional narratives. 

What steps can we take to change the narrative?

“Programming music by Black composers and women composers is the easiest thing in the world to do,” Shadle says, “because it just requires saying, ‘I'm going to do it’ and then following through. That's the bottom line.”

Resources

Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony by Douglas Shadle (Oxford University Press)

Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony by Douglas Shadle (Amazon)

• Let’s Make the Future That the ‘New World’ Symphony Predicted — The Times