On December 16, 1893, the Philharmonic Society of New York gave the world premiere performance of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor “From the New World” at Carnegie Hall. In his review of the performance the following day, New York Times music critic W.J. Henderson called the piece better known today as the New World Symphony, “A vigorous and beautiful work” that “must take the place among the finest works in this form produced since the death of Beethoven.” But in a review that ran close to 2,000 words, Henderson devoted perhaps 90 percent of his attention not to praising the artistic merit and craftsmanship of the New World Symphony, but rather to defending the controversial and ultimately political choices made by its composer. At a time when composers and critics in the United States were straining to identify and foster a uniquely American sound, the Czech immigrant Dvorak’s work suggested that the basis for such a sound was to be found not in the European tradition, but in the music of African Americans.
Already recognized internationally as one of the finest living composers of symphonic music, Antonin Dvorak took up the directorship of the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City in 1892, enticed by the then-unthinkably high annual salary of $15,000 and by the charge given him by the Conservatory’s benefactress, Jeannette Thurber, to show America “the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art—in short, to create a national music.” Much to the consternation of some critics, Dvorak would find the inspiration to fulfill that mission in a folk tradition that many white Americans regarded as “primitive.” But as Dvorak informed the New York Herald in May 1893, “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
Though he would be referred to derisively as a “negrophile” by Boston’s most prominent music critic even years after his death, Dvorak found an enthusiastic reception among critics and music lovers in New York City. “Is it American?” W.J. Henderson asked in the conclusion of his Times review of the New World Symphony. “The answer to this question depends wholly upon the attitude which the American public decides to take in regard to the sources of Dr. Dvorak’s inspiration.”
The next century of popular music would prove the accuracy of the musical vision Dvorak first expressed in the work that received its world premiere on this day in 1893.