"New World" Symphony

Four Score for Chicago

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor
Peter Serkin, Piano

Saturday, July 25, 2009
4:30 PM
Donor Gates Open
5:00 PM
Public Gates Open
7:30 PM
Concert Starts
Reserved $55/$35/$25
Lawn $10


Brahms:    Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Dvořák:     Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95
                   (“From the New World”)

About The Artist


Pianist Peter Serkin’s musical heritage extends back several generations: his grandfather was violinist and composer Adolf Busch and his father was pianist Rudolf Serkin. At age 11 he entered The Curtis Institute of Music and one year later made his Marlboro Music Festival and New York City debuts with conductor Alexander Schneider and performed with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. A dedicated chamber musician, Serkin has collaborated with the Budapest, Guarneri and Orion string quartets and Tashi, of which he was a founding member. An avid proponent of music of the 20th and 21st centuries, Serkin has performed many important world premieres. Most recently he played the world premieres of Charles Wuorinen’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Boston Symphony; a solo work by Elliot Carter; another work by Wuorinen for piano and orchestra with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s; a fifth piano concerto by Wuorinen with the Met Opera Orchestra; and Wuorinen’s new Piano Quintet with the Brentano String Quartet. Serkin’s recording with the English Chamber Orchestra of the six Mozart concerti composed in 1784 was nominated for a Grammy, received the Deutsche Schallplatten award and was named “Best Recording of the Year” by Stereo Review. Other Grammy-nominated recordings include Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus and Quartet for the End of Time and a recording of works by Stravinsky, Wolpe and Lieberson. The recipient of an honorary doctoral degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in 2001, Serkin was also the first pianist to receive the Premio Internazionale Musicale Chigiana. This is Peter Serkin’s 23rd season at Ravinia Festival, where he first performed in 1964.

Program Notes


Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15

Scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings and solo piano

Robert Schumann’s prophetic 1853 article “New Paths” thrust weighty expectations on Johannes Brahms. This relatively unknown piano talent from Hamburg easily met the first great promise that “there would and must suddenly appear some day one man who would be singled out to make articulate in an ideal way the highest expression of our time, one man who would bring us mastery, not as a result of a gradual development, but as Minerva, springing fully armed from the head of Cronus.”

The second prediction placed far weightier burdens on Brahms, the emerging composer. Schumann wrote: “Later, if he will wave his magic wand to where massed forces, in the chorus and orchestra, lend their strength, there lie before us still more wondrous glimpses into the secrets of the spirit world.” Over a 21-year period (1855-76), his Symphony No. 1 limped slowly and painfully to completion. Brahms may have waved the magic wand, but the orchestra resisted his musical incantations.

His Piano Concerto No. 1 mirrors—on a less exaggerated but no less arduous scale—the struggle between a relatively familiar keyboard medium and the unsolved mysteries of symphonic writing. Close friends initially heard excerpts as a three-movement sonata for two pianos in March 1854. Stunned by Robert Schumann’s recent attempted suicide, his despondent protégé cast a thick veil of Romantic tragedy over the sonata. This score has long since disappeared. Clara Schumann, who joined Brahms in this performance, wrote that the sonata “appeared to me to be quite powerful, quite original, noble and clearer than anything before.”

Sensing his musical ideas constricted by the two-piano medium, Brahms decided on a radical transformation: the sonata expanded into a four-movement symphony in D minor. However, the composer faltered at this stage. His orchestration technique was inadequate to the task, and ideas for the finale quickly dissipated. On the advice of his friend Julius Otto Grimm, Brahms cast aside the incomplete finale and two middle movements (the scherzo’s main theme ultimately survived as the funeral march “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” in the German Requiem), leaving only the first movement for a new project: the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.

The Maestoso gains its breadth through Brahms’s typically spacious lines and Romantic passion combined with the somewhat antiquated double-exposition form inherited from the Classical period. A large segment for orchestra alone (in old-fashioned 6/4 time) introduces the main melodies, most crucially the jumpy, disjointed first theme in the violins. Brahms intentionally delays the piano’s entrance, for the keyboard imbues new thematic interest and a sense of calm. Development, though brief, contains a relieving episode in major. Alteration and expansion of the principal melodies continues throughout the recapitulation.

Brahms mentioned the slow movement in a letter to Clara Schumann on December 30, 1856: “I am also painting a tender portrait of you which is to become the Adagio.” This piece sustains profound lyrical beauty over a vast expanse. Above one sketch of the first theme, Brahms wrote the words: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”). Writers have deciphered this cryptic remark variously. Malcolm MacDonald noted the identical rhythmic scansion of the text and melody. Domine unquestionably refers to Robert Schumann, whom Brahms frequently addressed as Mynheer Domine in correspondence. Some imagine the “blessed one” to be Clara, despite the obviously masculine pronoun qui. Another possible interpretation exists, one previously overlooked in the literature: “He who comes in the name of [Schumann]” might have been Brahms himself offering tender comfort to Clara, whose husband had died on July 29.

Several formal structures blend together in the finale: rondo, sonata and variation. In Mozartian fashion, the piano introduces the dramatic refrain theme, which possesses an ambiguous rhythmic profile. Brahms offers emotional relief in two contrasting areas, both major-key transformations of the main theme. The central portion develops the refrain extensively, occasionally employing fugal techniques. A cadenza, termed “quasi Fantasia” by Brahms, spreads out over a significant portion of the movement. Piano and orchestra combine for a bold, concluding statement of the refrain.

ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 (“From the New World”)

Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbal and strings

Mikhail Glinka, the father of Russian musical nationalism, once stated that a “nation creates music—the composer only arranges it.” Many others agreed that the true soul of any nation (in the cultural, not political, sense) radiates through the music of its people. A nationalistic movement arose in the late 18th century and gained momentum during the 19th century, spreading from the British Isles, France and Germany to Poland, Hungary, Spain, Bohemia and elsewhere. People all over the globe sought to express their unique cultural identity, those qualities that set them apart from the mainstream and from other people, through the power of music.

The United States arrived rather late on the nationalist musical scene. Its population represented many different cultures, yet political stability relied upon an overall sense of unity and cohesion—the treasured “melting pot” ideal. Its classical music tradition still depended overwhelmingly on a European influence. Promising American musicians typically studied with European immigrant teachers before completing their studies at a European conservatory. Performers mastered the standard European repertoire on their instrument or voice. Composers wrote music in European forms with European harmonic and melodic styles.

A few distinctively “American” personalities emerged in 19th-century classical music. One German immigrant, Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861), became known as the “Beethoven of America” (also “Beethoven of Kentucky”) by portraying the nature, minority cultures, lifestyle and patriotic music of his new homeland in such works as The Dawning of Music in Kentucky, or The Pleasures of Harmony in the Solitudes of Nature; Pushmataha, a Venerable Chief of a Western Tribe of Indians; and The Ornithological Combat of Kings, or The Condor of the Andes and the Eagle of the Cordilleras.

Piano virtuoso and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-69) blended the lively rhythms and folk melodies of his native New Orleans—later, the Caribbean, Latin America and South America—with European classical forms. This ethnic element, combined with his legendary keyboard prowess, earned Gottschalk the nickname “The Creole Liszt.” Even African-American pianist and composer Scott Joplin (1868-1917), a musician immortalized for his popular influence, wrote a ragtime opera entitled Treemonisha.

The efforts of these talented musicians in creating an inherently American classical tradition were considered in their day little more than curiosities. None of their innovations inspired a “school” of composition, and no musicians immediately followed them down the nationalistic path. America longed for its own identity in classical music. In this respect, it lagged far behind its admired European counterparts. 

Several unresolved issues stood in the way of an American nationalist movement in classical music. Which of the countless “folk” (that is, ethnic) cultures might represent the essential American identity? How would composers mix national styles with Classical forms? Where would musicians receive training in this nationalist tradition? Which musicians had enough experience in nationalist composition to guide the emergence of an “American” style?

Enter Mrs. Jeanette F. Thurber, the philanthropic wife of wealthy New York businessman Francis B. Thurber, who placed personal resources behind the establishment of the American School of Opera and its parent organization, the National Conservatory of Music (1885). Thurber understood the obstacles confronting American classical music and, through force of imagination and influence, willed the conservatory into existence. Her school pursued a progressive agenda involving high-level training of talented American musicians, regardless of race, class, gender or financial means. The faculty included some of the most eminent musicians living in New York.

Recognizing the need for a high-profile musician who could lead the conservatory and who could lend validity and direction to the development of an American approach to music, Thurber contacted the most famous nationalist composer living in Europe, Antonín Dvořák, to become director. She conveyed the initial offer by telegram in June 1891. After much negotiation and numerous changes in contract, Dvořák signed the agreement in April 1892. 

Dvořák arrived in the United States with his wife and two of six children on September 26, 1892. A series of social and musical events had been planned by the wealthiest and most influential New Yorkers to celebrate the arrival. His two-year appointment—duties included conducting the National Conservatory of Music orchestra and chorus and teaching composition and instrumentation—began the following month. 

Almost immediately Dvořák began surveying the American musical scene. One of his African-American students, Henry Thacker Burleigh, sang dozens of spirituals for the new conservatory director. A local music critic named James Huneker supplied Dvořák with journal articles about “negro” music. Mrs. Thurber presented him with a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and suggested that the tale would make an ideal “American” opera topic. Dvořák had read the poem years earlier in Bohemia, sparking a romanticized fascination with American Indians. In New York he watched a band of Oglala Sioux Indians in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. 

Closer contact with Native Americans occurred during the summer of 1893. Dvořák and his family spent much of their vacation time in the small community of Spillville, Iowa. In the expansive Iowa countryside, a group of immigrants established an authentic Czech village, retaining all the customs and the language of their homeland. By chance, a traveling Kickapoo Indian medicine show came through Spillville. Dvořák befriended the musicians in the show and asked them to perform for him. In preparation for his Hiawatha opera, which he never completed, Dvořák traveled to Nebraska and Minnesota, including a visit to Minnehaha Falls, the place immortalized by Longfellow.

When Dvořák returned to New York in September, his mind was filled with a collage of musical memories. The public at large already had come to expect a new orchestral work, since the New York Herald had reported the previous May that he “would write a symphony based upon American negro and Indian melodies.” Dvořák evidently composed most of the symphony in the spring before leaving for Spillville; he touched up the score over the summer. Anton Seidl and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra scheduled the premiere of the Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 (“From the New World”) for December 15, 1893. The enthusiastic and anxious audience included the cream of society—mostly “members of the fairer sex,” one reviewer reported, due to the rain, among them Mrs. E. Frances Hyde and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller.

The symphony’s triumphant premiere, though not entirely lauded by the press, became the high point of Dvořák’s years in the United States. His vision for an American idiom, as demonstrated in this symphony, involved a melding of New World folk influences bonded together by a compositional form perfected in the Old World. In these four movements one hears an English horn mimicking the voice of an African American singing a mournful hymn (Largo, later provided lyrics as “Goin’ Home”), a flute piping a pentatonic Native American melody (Allegro molto) or a recurring motive that perfectly fits the name “Hi-a-wa-tha.” Contemporary critics complained about themes that sounded vaguely Scottish or Czech. Those cultural influences also belonged to the musical landscape Dvořák experienced in the United States.

How ironic that it took a composer from a distant country who spoke fractured English to remind the American public of its rich, yet largely untapped, musical heritage. Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony did not answer the question: What is American music? The score did, however, raise public interest in the issue, and it served as the first declaration in a lively debate that has continued for more than a century.

—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009

Park Details

Saturday, July 25, 5:15 p.m. — Bennett • Gordon Hall
   Preview Concert
Artists from Ravinia’s Steans Institute

Saturday, July 25 — Bennett • Gordon Hall
   Postlude Concert
Artists from Ravinia’s Steans Institute