The New World Appropriated: Seattle Symphony presents Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony

Posted on September 26, 2014, 6:47 pm
4 mins


The Seattle Symphony has long been a stalwart among the vibrant cultural organizations residing in downtown Seattle. Since Ludovic Morlot’s appointment as Music Director four years ago, the orchestra’s programming has taken an enviable, Janusian approach, looking back—with solid performances of the symphonic canon—and looking forward—with new commissions, concepts and collaborations. This year the Seattle Symphony can boast the addition of a Pulitzer prize to their accumulated accolades, for John Luther Adam’s Become Ocean, an extensive, innovative multimedia work.

As the upcoming Columbus Day approaches (potentially known as “Indigenous People’s Day” in Seattle pending the outcome of the October 6 vote) few pieces could be as relevant and appropriate as Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, also known as the New World Symphony. The timing of this performance inadvertently combines the past and the future and the politics that defined both.

The New World Symphony premiered in 1893, during a time when composers and critics were attempting to identify and promote a uniquely ‘American sound’ in symphonic repertoire. Based on the music of African American slaves, Dvořák’s symphony rather controversially implied that the basis for such a sound was to be found, not with European art music, but in the music of African Americans. Dvořák became director of the New National Conservatory of Music in New York City in 1892 and was charged to present a depiction of “…the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art—in short, to create a national music.” He would find this inspiration in the slave songs of America in which he said he “…discovered all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”

Despite the controversy at the time of its premiere, the New World Symphony was immediately lauded as a new standard in the symphonic repertory. New York Times music critic W.J. Henderson, despite his hesitations over the “negrophilic” nature of the piece, admitted that this was “…a vigorous and beautiful work that must take the place among the finest works in this form [the symphony] produced since the death of Beethoven.”

The Ninth Symphony provides all the drama, flair and sweeping melodious beauty that audience-members could expect from a night at the symphony, and the main themes of the first, second and third movements have been used to such an extent in movies, commercials and other media, that it might well feel familiar in a sense.

The Seattle Symphony presents Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony on Thursday October 2, paired with American composers John Adams’ Lollapalooza and Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, featuring award-winning violinist Philippe Quint. The Seattle Symphony’s exploration of Dvořák’s music concludes on Sunday, October 5 with a chamber music performance of his Piano Trio No. 4 in E minorDumky’ paired with Mahler’s Piano Quartet Movement in A minor, Brahms’ Horn Trio in E-flat major and Jolivet’s Pastorales de Noël for Flute, Basson and Harp.

The Symphony also presents its Untuxed initiative, a shorter program without intermission and a more casually clad orchestra on Friday night, October 3. This concert will feature the New World Symphony and Dvořák’s Bagatelles, Op. 47, for Quartet.

Seattle Symphony presents ‘Dvořák and the New World’


Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, Thursday, October 2, 7:30 PM and Saturday, October 4, 8 PM

Untuxed, Friday, October 3, 7 PM

Chamber Series, Dvořák’s ‘Dumky Trio Sunday, October 5, 2 PM

Where: Benaroya Hall (200 University Street)

General admission tickets available through

Johann Van Niekerk is a writer, conductor and collaborative artist based in Seattle, WA. He holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Washington where his research focused on the role that music has played throughout history in effecting social change. Van Niekerk covers performing arts events in and around Seattle.