Antonin Dvorak, Symphony Number 9 in E Minor

One of the pieces I remember listening to repeatedly during my first sophomore semester at Indiana University in 1974, was Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony Number 9 in E Minor, subtitled “From the New World.”

Dvorak came to the United States in 1892 to take up a position as a teacher in a music conservatory started in New York by a wealthy patron named Jeanette Thurber. Dvorak came from remote Bohemia and was supposedly enthralled by the cosmopolitan environment, the bustle of trains and sense of progress. He also became fascinated by and wrote enthusiastically about the beauty of Negro Spirituals. Some critics and musicologist therefore find the symphony to be inspired by that type of music, some even suggesting the first movement has a theme based on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Dvorak denied this, saying his music owed its origin to Bohemian melodies, even though he elsewhere said it was composed in the spirit of American folk music.

Written in 1893, the symphony found a receptive audience and it has become part of the standard repertory. Though starting out on with a kind of gloomy introduction, the first movement quickly changes into a majestic and sinewy statement of confidence. The second movement, marked largo delivers a number of beautiful, lyrical melodies, which in turn convey peace, anguish, and solemnity. Dvorak keeps it from turning maudlin, however, by letting the English horn introduce a joyous melody about 2/3 of the way through. It starts out almost like the twitter of a butterfly but then picks up tempo and become quite uplifting. I used to whiz around campus on my bike, weaving in and out of pedestrians, whistling this section as loud as I could. This was probably another reason no one considered me a babe magnet.

The first time I heard the third movement, it seemed similar to the beginning of the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth. Dvorak takes his scherzo into much more cheery place, however. The final movement begins with a tympani crash and the orchestra playing full tilt a rousing theme, which dominates most of the movement. Dvorak does not make this overly pompous, though, and he does weave in one fluid theme followed by a lyrical one, before reverting back to the fire and passion in this movement. Funny, I just read that the movement is called Allegro con fuoco (fast with fire).

As I said, I listened to this piece a lot in the fall of 1974 around the time I lost my faith.

According to what I learned in Sunday school, there were two types of sins-mortal and venial. If you died without having confessed your venal sins, you went to purgatory where you stayed until the fire burned the sins away. If you died with an unconfessed mortal sin, purgatory held no hope; you were damned. So this is how the church keeps you coming back–classify most human behaviors and thoughts as sins of one kind of another, only allow confession on Saturday, and finalize the process of ablution with communion on Sunday.

Despite this scheme, there was one sin that was so bad that having committed it, there was no way to expunge it, and you would go straight to hell. Note even contrition or confession could save you. That sin consisted of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, you will recall, formed part of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now you could form a pretty good mental image and God and Jesus based on popular images, but what did the Holy Ghost look like? The only pictures I’d ever seen of it appeared in my little catechism book and family bible, where after Jesus’ resurrection, it descends from heaven and floats above the heads of the disciples either as a small tongue of flame or else as a dove. The nuns never explained what the Holy Spirit signified or why it was so bad to blaspheme against it. So how could you even form enough of an opinion about it to want to bad mouth it? What’s not to like about a bird?

Of course, once you tell someone they must not even think bad thoughts about something, it’s almost impossible to stop yourself from doing so. So about half an hour after the nuns told us that one, I reckon about 9/10 of the class were convinced they were going straight to hell. Therein lies the real genius of the Catholic church. People who had blasphemed might think they could do something to wipe out that ultimate sin, and that hope would keep them coming back to church.

There had to be exceptions right? I once met a girl at university who had like me grown up in a catholic household. After she had heard about the Holy Ghost sin, she committed it. Then her reasoning started to go like this: “Well, I’ve done the big one. I’m damned. So why bother trying to be good any more?” When she got to college, she therefore dedicated herself to indulging in every hedonistic pleasure she could–sex and drugs and rock and roll.

Now when I left the Catholic church in 1974, that lure of hedonism didn’t appeal to me. I don’t know why. I was probably so much of a nerd, wrapped up in my philosophy and classical music, that those attractions seemed beneath me. Not that I didn’t indulge from time to time, but they never came to dominate my life. Maybe that is why I was drawn to Buddhism–because of the philosophy of finding the right and balanced way to live one’s life. That and because I was terminally shy about approaching women. Fear of rejection, plain and simple.

So there I was, godless, girl-less, and gutless. But lest I paint a more dire picture than it actually was, there were definite high points, and music like Dvorak’s New World Symphony played a large role in leading me to them. To me the spirit of such music is what is “holy” in this life, and that is something I have never been able to blaspheme. Hope that gets me into heaven.

Download the MP3 or buy CD of Dvorak at Amazon


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

One Response to Antonin Dvorak, Symphony Number 9 in E Minor

  1. Pingback: Bittersweet Symphony Instrumental Blog

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