Antonín Dvořák’s sojourn in the United States from 1892 to 1895 came about through the efforts of Mrs. Jeanette B. Thurber. A dedicated and idealistic proponent of an American national musical style, she underwrote and administered the first American music conservatory, the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Because of Dvořák’s popularity throughout Europe, he was Thurber’s first choice for a director. He, in turn, was probably lured to the big city so far from home by both a large salary and convictions regarding musical nationalism that paralleled Mrs. Thurber’s own.
Thirty years before his arrival in New York Dvořák had read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha in a Czech translation and was eager to learn more about the Native American and African American music, which he believed should be the basis of the American style of composition. He also shared with Mrs. Thurber the conviction that the National Conservatory should admit Negro students.
While his knowledge of authentic Native American music is questionable – his exposure came through samples transcribed for him by American friends and through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – he became familiar with Negro spirituals through one of his students, as well as indirectly via the songs of Stephen Foster. He incorporated both of these styles into the Symphony No. 9, composed while he was in New York.
Just as Dvořák never quoted Bohemian folk music directly in his own nationalistic music, he did not use American themes in their entirety. Rather, he incorporated characteristic motives into his own unsurpassed gift for melody. Nevertheless, any listener with half an ear can discern fragments of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the second theme of the first movement,