The Second Book of the Gramophone Record (pub 1925)
by Percy A Scholes
Symphony No. 5, in E minor, From the New World, Op.95. Dvorak
THE HALLE ORCHESTRA (Conducted by Hamilton Harty)
THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL ORCHESTRA (Conducted by Sir Landon Ronald)
For three years of his life (1892-5) Dvorak lived in America, where he acted as Director, of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. His residence there affected his composition. He who had, as a Czech composer, been greatly influenced by Czech folk-tune, began to consider the case of the poor American composer, who had no national folk-tune. In the Century Magazine, during the last year of his stay, he wrote:
‘A while ago I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants.
‘I was led to take the view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have been found on this side of the water, but largely by observation that this seems to be recognised, though often unconsciously, by most Americans.
‘All races have their distinctive national songs which they at once recognise as their own, even if they have never heard them before. It is a proper question to ask, what songs, then, belong to the American and appeal more strikingly to him than any others? What melody would stop him on the street if he were in a strange land, and make the home feeling well-up within him, no matter how hardened he might be or how wretchedly the tunes were played?
‘Their number, to be sure, seems to be limited. The most potent, as well as the most beautiful amongst them, according to my estimation, are certain of the so-called plantation melodies and slave-songs, all of which are distinguished by unusual and subtle harmonies, the thing which I have found in no other songs but those of Scotland and Ireland.’
(The word ‘Harmonies’ above is unfortunate; either it represents a mis-translation, for it seems unlikely that Dvorak actually wrote in English, or it is used in the curiously vague sense of the poets.)
Before this article appeared, Dvorak had already illustrated its thesis by the composition of his New World Symphony, first performed, under the conductorship of Anton Seidl, in New York, in 1893 (the first British performance was at a Philharmonic Society’s concert in June of the following year).
The Symphony does not make actual use of Negro tunes, but much of its subject matter is obviously modelled upon these or affected by them; in other parts it is certainly more Slav than Slave.
Note for instance an apparent reflection of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, in a subject of the First Movement:
In the description that follows I have taken advantage of a very highly coloured piece of orchestration (for that this Symphony certainly is) to call attention to the roles of the various instruments, these Records offering a splendid opportunity to any gramophonist who wishes to become intimately acquainted with the innumerable and widely contrasted timbres of the various sections and individual members of the orchestra.
A GUIDE TO THE MUSIC.
Introduction (Adagio=Slow and broad).
This is portentous and pessimistic. At the opening the ‘Cellos, very softly and mysteriously, whisper, to the accompaniment of Violas and Double Basses, this gloomy observation:
Then the Horns give a one-note call. A Flute, influenced by the ‘Cellos’ pessimism, repeats the tragic whisper in its girlish treble, and two Oboes reproduce meanwhile the accompaniment formerly taken by the Violas and Double Basses, a Bassoon adding a touch of bass at the end.
Then, with all their force, the whole body of Strings make themselves heard, taking as their matter a little three-note motif from the mystery-whisper just heard, and crying it on the housetops. Kettledrums (their rhythm not quite clearly to be perceived, in gramophonic reproduction) thunder a rat-tat-tap and Wood Wind and Horns strike in with a sympathetic chord. Three or four times this alternation of Strings, Kettledrums and Wood Wind is heard, and then these leave the task of lament for a moment to the ‘Cellos and Double Basses, who close the passage with a two-bar melody in a low region of their compass.
The Flutes and Oboes interpose, with a querulous complaint, given out in parallel lines six notes apart, the lower Strings and Bassoons maintaining a chord underneath it.
Then ‘Cellos, Violas and Horns introduce their bolder thought:
The Flute-Oboe querulousness and the Viola-‘Cello-Horn boldness answer one another again, and then the Full Orchestra snaps four times and bursts into a roar, which finally eases its mind, so that, with a high tremolo Violin note as prelude, we burst at last into the more wholesome atmosphere of the
First Movement (Allegro molto=Very lively).
Before we hear this we may for a moment consider the psychological purport of the Introduction we have just heard. It differs in mood from anything which follows. The Symphony as a whole is by turns robust, gay, humorous, thoughtful, plaintive—but not tragic. It might, then, almost be said that this Introduction is out of sympathy with the work it introduces, but a better suggestion, if it is not too imaginative, is that it represents a spirit of despair, quickly trampled underfoot by a healthy nature.
Compare the Introduction to Tchaikovsky’s Pathetic Symphony. It is equally despairing, but in this case despair is the mood of the Movement to follow and indeed (despite relief in the middle movements) of the work as a whole.
As the New World’s First Movement proper opens the tragic mood is almost but not quite vanquished, the sky is no longer stormy, but a few wisps of cloud drift across it still. Loud complaint or whispered sorrow have gone, or have softened down into a feeling of mild regret which just colours the Movement in places.
The Opening Theme seems to be a transformation of a theme already heard, for it opens with a Horn phrase which, in general curve and rhythm, resembles the last-quoted theme, and then tacks on to this a vigorous balancing phrase, given to the two Clarinets and the two Bassoons, Clarinets playing in parallel thirds, and Bassoons doing the same an octave below.
This is the First Subject and the chief theme of the Movement, and for some little time treatment of it keeps the Composer busy.
The next tune to enter is this, in Second Violins:
I give it here for completeness’ sake, but, alas, in both H.M.V. and Columbia Records it is almost lost under its accompanying parts. Next enters one of the pleasantest tunes of the Movement:
Its insouciance exhibits it as an example of the spirit of ‘How to be happy though minor’. (There has, by the way, a few seconds previously, been a prophetic hint of the advent of this tune, but of so fragmentary a nature that it has probably escaped most listeners.)
This tune may to some seem to take on a Scottish tinge from the fact that it is accompanied by a sort of bagpipe drone, or standing note (D) supplied by Violins and a Horn. Further the flattened seventh of the key (the F natural shown in the extract above) is suggestive of military music over the Border. (With all due respect, we may ask our friends of the North how it comes about that they share with the African negro a penchant for pentatonic scales, flattened sevenths and rhythmic ‘snaps’, and also what is the explanation of the fact that when harmonising a tune of Negro character this Bohemian composer has felt a suggestion of the manner of their national instrument to be in keeping?)
A little later than this the listener’s ear may be struck by some curious little whoops, at the top of the music; these are the work of the two Flutes, three notes apart, executing a simultaneous shake, and of Clarinets doubling this an octave below.
The tunes just heard are of the nature of subsidiary subjects, and soon after hearing the one just quoted we note the entrance of one which may, by the closely analytical, be recognised as the Second Subject proper—the ‘ Swing Low’ tune already mentioned. It is softly hummed by a Flute to the still softer accompaniment of the Strings (Double Basses silent).
This is one of the loveliest tunes in a Symphony that abounds in such. Note the pentatonic nature of its opening half, and the contrast of the following four bars, in which the missing two notes of the scale re-appear.
The Violins (Firsts and Seconds in Octaves) repeat this happy song, and with a three-note figure taken from its last bar but one, climb high up their compass. Trombone and String Basses thunder out the opening of the same tune, and then, with a burst of energy, the Whole Orchestra agrees wholeheartedly that every trace of pessimism is now swept away, and with that assertion they bring to an end the first section, or ‘Exposition’ of the Movement.
Here the first side of both H.M.V, and Columbia Records ends.
The Development of this material and its Recapitulation follow. The themes above quoted having been grasped, the course of these two further sections of the Movement will be quite clear.
A little tragic feeling is experienced in the Development and recurs at the end of the Recapitulation.
The Columbia Record is complete. The H.M.V. Record omits a few brief passages, which for the benefit of readers who wish to follow the Movement with their score may be indicated:
First Movement—Bars 76-83, 106-113, 285-288, 301-308, 335-342
These omissions are discreetly contrived and are of trifling importance, amounting only to 31 bars out of a total of about 430. Close-knit form not being a strong point with Dvorak, his work is more susceptible of judicious cutting than that of some other composers. Still the Columbia people have managed to avoid all cuts, and they have only given two sides to this Movement, the same as H.M.V. On the other hand, the H.M.V. Record of this particular Movement reproduces perhaps a rather better orchestral balance and steadier tone than the Columbia Record, especially in full passages, and the H.M.V. Trombones are decidedly better than the Columbia. Both H.M.V. and Columbia have, however, done substantial justice to the Movement.
Second Movement (Largo=Slow and broad in style).
True to his determination to write a genuine American symphony, Dvorak turned to Longfellow, and since he was already paying the Negro a compliment in the nature of some of his musical subject matter he determined to pay the Noble Redskin another in the choice of a poetical subject.
The Second Movement, which is on the whole a very lovely thing indeed, is intended, we are told, to express the composer’s reflections upon the romantic love of Hiawatha and Minnehaha.
‘That this peace may last for ever,
And our hands be clasped more closely.
And our hearts be more united,
Give me as my wife this maiden,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Loveliest of Dacotah women.’
And. the ancient Arrow-maker
Paused a moment ere he answered,
Smoked a little while in silence,
Looked at Hiawatha proudly,
Fondly looked at Laughing Water,
And made answer very gravely,
‘Yes, if Minnehaha wishes;
Let your heart speak, Minnehaha! ‘
And the lovely Laughing Water
Seemed more lovely as she stood there,
Neither willing nor reluctant,
As she went to Hiawatha,
Softly took the seat beside him,
While she said, and blushed to say it,
‘I will follow you, my husband! ‘
This was Hiawatha’s wooing!
This Movement is in the key of D flat major, which, under its alias of C sharp major, is a not distant relative of E minor, the key of the previous Movement.
Dvorak seems to have been sanguine enough to suppose that people would not make the usual disturbance between the two Movements, and so has opened the second with a passage transitional from, one to the other. It is a passage of low-lying chords, solemnly intoned by Horns, Trumpets and Trombones (with Clarinets and Bassoons thrown in, since they happened to be at hand). It should begin very softly, ending in a swell to loudly, but neither Sir Landon Ronald nor Mr. Harty has succeeded in persuading his players to subdue their tone at the beginning, not even, indeed to play these chords in tune, the Halle Wind players being really disgracefully ‘out’.
Two bars of very soft chords by Muted Strings follow—in the score and in the Columbia version, not in the H.M.V.!
Then begins one of the most beautiful musical themes in the whole of nineteenth century music. It is surprising what the economical Scots have done with the pentatonic scale, and it is surprising what the Bohemian butcher-boy can do with it. There is something of the ‘five small loaves and two fishes’ value about the five notes which make up this scale, when they come into the hands of racial and individual genius, and Dvorak has heightened the value by entrusting this melody to the poetical Cor Anglais— with Muted String aacompaniment
entrusting this melody to the poetical Cor Anglais— with Muted String accompaniment.
When this melody has been extended and completed (a Clarinet at one point doubling it for a few bars, at the tenth below), its last few notes are twice echoed by Clarinet (with another Clarinet and Bassoons accompanying).
There follows the solemn chord passage with which the Movement opened, now lifted from the bottom of the orchestral compass to the top, and taken from the Brass and entrusted to the Wood Wind.
Further treatment, very delicate and tender, of the melody just quoted follows (note especially the two Horns who play it as a duet, three notes apart from each other), and then steals in this further melody, in Flute and Oboe :
This again is pentatonic in its outline—insisting upon the Lah, Soh and Me of the scale in a very characteristically pentatonic way, and only admitting the seventh of the scale (the Te) as a mere passing-note connection between the Doh and the Lah.
Another tune which is heard is this (more of it is heard from Columbia than H.M.V., by the way, for the latter ‘cuts’ rather extensively in this Movement):
Still another tuneful passage is the one beginning as follows, of which the New York critic, Mr. Krehbiel, who was, I believe, in the Master’s confidence, said, ‘it may be intended to suggest the gradual awakening of animal life in the prairie scene; and striking use is made of trills, which are exchanged between the different instrumental choirs as if they were the voices of the night or dawn in converse’.
(This, to me, somehow brings thoughts of the pastoral piping of the hero of Iolanthe, which, by the way, was written in 1882, ten years before the work now under discussion, so in saying this I am making no reflection upon Sullivan. There is a good deal in common between Dvorak and Sullivan, by the way.)
So the Movement continues, making use of the material already quoted, and doing so in the most charming manner, with a strange mingling of simplicity and subtlety.
Towards the end there come a Trombone allusion or two to the First Subject of the previous Movement (better heard in H.M.V. than in Columbia), also allusions, in Horns and in Strings, to the Second Subject of that Movement and a little later a passage where Muted Violins carry the Main Tune of the Movement and twice break off, in what, if the device were not so poetically used, we might call a ‘musical chairs’ fashion.
Taking this Movement as a whole one may say of it, as of the previous Movement, that it overflows with lovely melody, but that in the matter of form it is somewhat deficient, lacking logical connection of thought. If you want to take the wind out of the sails of criticism, you will imaginatively call the Movement a patch of hedgerow blooms rather than a garden bed.
Now about the two brands of Record. In this Movement neither is entirely satisfactory. The H.M.V. not only robs us of a few short passages by ‘cutting’ (they are less missed here than they would be in a more formally perfect piece), but at the very outset, and almost throughout the Movement, offends us by giving the lovely Cor Anglais melody with a hoot on every A flat—and A flats are rather frequent! The Cor Anglaist (if that is the word) of the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra should have his instrument looked to. The cuts in the H.M.V. version are as follows:
Bars 5 and 6
There is also a slight omission at the very end. (Only about twenty bars in all.)
The Columbia Record, which gives three sides to the Movement, against the H.M.V.’s two, has the out~of-tune opening I have already mentioned, and is not always well balanced as to orchestral forces or well managed as to speeds. But its Cor Anglais (though usually a bit ‘fluty’) is much more even in tone, and the Cor Anglais is the most important instrument of the Orchestra so far as this Movement is concerned.
It is much to be wished that both Companies would re-record this wonderful Largo from the New World Symphony,1 for neither of them has done the Composer or itself full justice.
1 Since this was in type the H.M.V. has done so, with greatly improved results. It behoves purchasers to see that they are supplied with the newer version of this movement. The Cor Anglais passage is an easy test.
Finally, a personal reminiscence, for what it is worth. Long years ago I had my first hearing of this Movement from Sir Walter Parratt on the organ (it has always been a favourite piece with organists). The title New World set my mind on a voyage of discovery The opening chords thrilled me with the feeling of heroic enterprise, solemnly undertaken, the Cor Anglais melody meant to me the lonely brooding over vast spaces of sea (at one point, I recall, I thought of Columbus and the floating seaweed which showed him he was at last nearing land) And these are the associations which have for me always clung about the piece. I never guessed at forests primeval, Hiawatha and Minnehaha, and, even now that I know of their claims upon my imagination, as I listen, to the music they never enter my mind. The title ‘New World’ set my thoughts on that ocean track thirty years ago and they will never leave it. And, after all, what does it matter? I believe my interpretation is as good as that of the Composer himself!
After writing this, I ask another musician who is in the room what are his associations. He answers without hesitation: ‘Negroes on a Southern plantation, in the sunset’.
So there you are! Music may be a form of language, but it doesn’t tell us much, does it? Nor is it meant to do so! Columbus at sea, negroes in a sunset, Hiawatha in the forest—any one of these ideas will do (if one must have interpretations), provided that to us it is a romantic idea, and so in keeping with the music.
Third Movement: Scherzo (Molto vivace=Very lively).
Both H.M.V. and Columbia Records give this vigorous and attractive Movement entirely without ‘cuts’. Its orchestration is particularly vivid, and it pays well for study with the score.
It should open:
but, by some ingenuity, both Records invert this—and so take away all its meaning, for it is intended as a hint of the coming First Subject of the Movement:
This is played by a Flute and an Oboe in unison, and the rests shown above are filled in by the Clarinet echoing the tune, piecemeal. And all the time the Strings maintain a chord (a chord of the seventh, by the way, if you know what that means) in a curious cluck-cluck repetition.
A moment later the First Violin takes over the tune, the Kettledrums now doing the echoing, at any rate of the rhythm (listen keenly, for Kettledrums never get real justice from the Gramophone).
Then the Violins give out the same tune in a higher octave, Wood Wind doing the echoing, and Horns working in with the very diatonic three-notes-to-a-bar tune a chromatic downhill one of their own, three-notes-to-two-bars.
Lastly, the ‘Cellos and Double Basses, with Horns to help them, give out the main tune, with Trumpet and Kettledrums echoing the rhythm and the Wood Wind now playing the three-notes-to-two-bars chromatic downhill tune.
That seems to be a lot of description for a mere half-inch or less of record, but I can assure the listener that by following it and learning to note everything mentioned he may teach himself a good deal.
And even now I have not mentioned everything that goes on; for example, there is a certain very curious trumpet-call type of tune on the Clarinet, which enters into the score in one place. Find it!
This is the first section of the Scherzo, and it is now repeated intact, to give the listener a better chance of becoming acquainted with it—though for that matter he will have chance enough before the Movement ends.
The next tune that enters is a particularly gracious one, played by Flute and Oboe, to a String accompaniment:
This is immediately taken up by the two Clarinets, playing in octaves, and there ought to be a soft Triangle ‘ping’ in every bar, but if any reader can detect this last in either H.M.V. or Columbia Record I congratulate him!
Lastly ‘Cellos and Bassoons take up the same lovely tune, but the Columbia players have muddied the stream here by violently throwing handfuls of loud Wood Wind quavers into it, instead of dropping them in gently, and if you can get a glimpse of a ‘Cello-Bassoon melody at the bottom of it you do cleverly.
At last the First Subject returns. After it has died away, you will note a passing reference to the First Subject of the First Movement in the ‘Cello and then in the Viola, and then we come to the Trio, which like the Scherzo proper is in two Sections, the first of which opens with this jolly Wood Wind tune, more likely a dance from the composer’s native Bohemia than one from a Southern plantation:
The H.M.V. gives this clearly enough; the Columbia obscures it by allowing the Violin counterpoint to merge into the Wood Wind’s Subject—a piece of rank bad management on the part of the conductor, I fear. This Section is repeated.
The second Section of the Trio is a delightful Waltz:
A charming effect is obtained in a passage of very soft trilled chords, in turn given to Strings, and to Flute and Clarinet.
The Scherzo proper at last returns (at the turn of the Record in H.M.V., just after it in Columbia), and when it has been heard again, there is a brief Coda (or tail-piece) made out of the first Scherzo theme, the First Subject of the First Movement, and a reference to what we may call the Swing Low, Sweet Chariot theme of the First Movement, now slowly given out by a Trumpet. This final touch should produce a most romantic effect (by H.M.V. muffed to some extent; Columbia is better).
Fourth Movement (Allegro con fuoco = Quick and fiery). This is much the least valuable of the four Movements, but it has its interest nevertheless. It seems hardly necessary to describe it, bar by bar.
The following are the chief tunes.
A heavily serious one heard first on the Horns and Trumpets, loudly:
An almost frivolous, hat-in-the-air ebullition in the String department:
A rather tame tune in Clarinet, relieved by a ‘Cello guffaw down below :
A string tune of which it may be said, ‘The tail wags the dog’; it begins in a commonplace manner, then brightens up into a series of chuckles and ends with an (unintentional) tag of Three Blind Mice, of which a great deal of the happiest use is quickly made.
Add to all these a number of quotations from the other movements (which will be easily recognised, even where two of them are running in double harness), and you have the last Movement of the New World.
The orchestration is sometimes piquant and sometimes blatant. Note a most effective ‘Piatti Solo’ (i.e., a touch of the Cymbals) followed by an ascending passage by the Bassoons.
The Columbia Record gives this Movement complete; the H.M.V. Record has the following omissions:
i.e., a total of 75 bars out of 348—not very much, and in any case this Movement bears cutting better than any other in the Symphony, being slung together, rather than composed.
The H.M.V. people give two sides to this Movement, the Columbia three.
Five Large Columbia Light Blue Records. L. 1523-4-5-6-7, each 7s. 6d.
Four Large Black H.M.V. Records. D 536, 537, 587, 613, each 6s. 6d.
Printed Music. Goodwin & Tabb, Miniature Score, 6s.