By Douglas W. Shadle
From The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved. Used under license.
The last live performance I attended before the lockdown last year featured excerpts from Nkeiru Okoye’s gripping 2014 opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom. The score takes listeners on a journey through Black musical styles, including spirituals, jazz, blues and gospel.
“I am Moses, the liberator,” Harriet proclaims in her final aria, pistol in hand, as she urges an exhausted man to continue running toward freedom. “You keep on going or die.”
With its themes of survival and deliverance, Okoye’s work would make a fitting grand opening for an opera company’s post-pandemic relaunch. But the American classical music industry has too often chosen familiarity and homogeneity over the liberating power of diverse voices.
To help break this inertia, we must confront a work that has left indelible marks on music in this country: Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. To grasp in full the complex legacy of this classic piece would allow us to move beyond it, fostering new paths for artists of color.
In 1893, the year of the symphony’s premiere, Dvorak argued in print that Black musical idioms should form the basis of an American classical style—not an entirely new position, but far from the norm at the time. Some white musicians were so scandalized that they accused reporters of misrepresenting Dvorak’s ideas. Of course, he meant exactly what he said, for he consistently reiterated his views, eventually adding Indigenous American music to his recommendations.
Dvorak was true to his word in the “New World.” After finishing the symphony, he explained in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that he had studied certain songs from Black traditions until he became “thoroughly imbued with their characteristics” and felt “enabled to make a musical picture in keeping with and partaking of those characteristics.” Musical gestures inspired by these songs pervade the piece, such as the melodic contour of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the first movement and the second movement’s famous, plaintive Largo theme, which has often been mistaken as a direct quotation of a spiritual—but which actually was only later given words and turned into a spiritual, “Goin’ Home.”
Echoing segregationist Jim Crow policies in force at the time, several white critics bent over backward to deny Black influence on the “New World”—despite Dvorak’s own words—as if African origins would preclude the piece’s place in the national musical fabric. Black writers, on the other hand, acknowledged the importance of his advocacy. Richard Greener, a former dean of what is now Howard University School of Law, suggested in 1894 that if Black musicians heeded Dvorak’s recommendations, they would “become greater than the lawgiver”—a clear challenge to the prevailing social order.
Composers from a variety of racial backgrounds, including R. Nathaniel Dett, Amy Beach, Henry Gilbert, Florence Price, Dennison Wheelock, John Powell and Nora Holt, followed in Dvorak’s footsteps during the first quarter of the 20th century, writing a cascade of pieces invoking Black or Indigenous folk styles.
White composers frequently earned praise for their music’s engagement with these idioms, which often included direct quotation. A critic for the magazine Musical America wrote, for example, that Powell’s “Rhapsodie Nègre” had a “savage, almost brutal polyphonic climax yielding gradually to a more peaceable slow section reared on a lyrical phrase with Dvorakian loveliness.” But white writers attacked Black composers like Florence Price and William Dawson for using similar approaches.
For many Black musicians, the ‘New World’ was galvanizing precisely because of its ties to the African diaspora.
When Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” at Carnegie Hall in 1934, another writer for Musical America wrote that “the influence of Dvorak is strong almost to the point of quotation, and when all is said and done, the Bohemian composer’s symphony, ‘From the New World,’ stands as the best symphony ‘à la Nègre’ written to date.”
What was sophisticated and lovely when Powell did it was plagiarism when Dawson did.
Dawson responded in The Pittsburgh Courier, a major Black newspaper, to defend his stylistic choices. “Dvorak used Negro idioms,” he said. “That is my language. It is the language of my ancestors, and my misfortune is that I was not born when that great writer came to America in search of material.”
Over the decades, the “New World” steadily grew in popularity but never shed the aura of controversy surrounding its connections to Black music. A New York Philharmonic program annotator remarked in 1940 that “Dvorak, in his enthusiasm for Negro music, overlooked the fact that there exists in our diversified population a rich heritage of folk music brought hither by white colonists.” Around the same time, Olin Downes of The New York Times called the origin and inspiration of the symphony “a question for academic argument.”
For many Black musicians, though, the “New World” was galvanizing precisely because of its ties to the African diaspora. In June 1940, a little over a year after the release of Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching protest song “Strange Fruit,” Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic premiered William Grant Still’s heart-rending “And They Lynched Him on a Tree.” A somber English horn solo early in the piece recalled the famous “New World” Largo, which directly preceded it on the program.
After Rodzinski discouraged the violinist Everett Lee from auditioning for the Philharmonic because of his race, Lee formed one of the nation’s first racially integrated orchestras, the Cosmopolitan Symphony Society, and became its conductor. During its third season, in 1951, he programmed Dvorak’s Ninth, which he would later direct at engagements around the world in an illustrious career spanning nearly seven decades.
At the height of the civil rights movement, in the mid-1960s, a group that included the conductor Benjamin Steinberg and the composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson founded another major integrated orchestra in New York called the Symphony of the New World—an optimistic nod to Dvorak. When Everett Lee returned from Europe to conduct the group in 1966, his program included its namesake, and his favorite: the “New World” Symphony. And the piece has remained a staple in the repertoire of many other prominent Black conductors, including A. Jack Thomas, Rudolph Dunbar, Dean Dixon, Jeri Lynne Johnson, Thomas Wilkins and Michael Morgan.
Over the past 50 years, the “New World” has become perhaps the keystone in epochal American orchestral concerts abroad, including the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1973 tour of China and the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea in 2008. But ensembles have rarely paired it with pieces by living composers of color; instead, Dvorak alone becomes the international spokesman for the whole multiracial American experience.
That should change. To start, organizations should reject the uncritical valorization of white composers of the past who appropriated Black or Indigenous musical styles—Dvorak, for example, or George Gershwin—as if programming their work comes at no cost to composers of color, past and present.
Like Okoye. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has its strengths, but unlike it, Okoye’s deeply researched opera offers singers ample opportunity to engage with our national past while being liberated from the burden of embodying distorted stereotypes. Okoye’s evocative “Black Bottom,” premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at its annual Classical Roots celebration last March, is one of the most engrossing musical portraits of Black history in the available repertoire. (The performance was an especially memorable moment for an artist who attributes her decision to continue a career in composition in part to the Detroit orchestra’s tradition of inclusivity.)
Beloved and moving, the “New World” Symphony has a secure place on programs well into the future. But Dvorak, and the white composers who followed in his footsteps, should not be the loudest voices speaking on behalf of all Americans.
At the Detroit Symphony’s first Classical Roots celebration, in 1978, the conductor Paul Freeman programmed the “New World” alongside music by Hale Smith, Still and José Maurício Nunes Garcia—a rich musical cross-section of living and historical Black composers from diverse backgrounds. To continue reckoning with Dvorak’s legacy today, Detroit has commissioned a piece by James Lee III that will premiere alongside the “New World” next season. Lee’s work, “Amer’ican,” presents a lavish tapestry of musical images drawn from over six centuries of Indigenous and Black history.
Lee said in an interview that he found it “quite gratifying” to join Dvorak in weaving Black and Indigenous musical materials into a work. According to the notes accompanying the piece, it closes with “music representing memories of unbridled freedom and exhilaration.”
Lee added that his work had been set alongside Dvorak’s by other orchestras, but that in Detroit he would join a tradition of true creative dialogue between past and present.
“Being programmed with the music of Dvorak is nothing new to me,” he said. “But this case is special.”