This article analyzes the Largo from Dvořák’s New Symphony. It’s meant to illustrate a critic’s analytical process in a particularly specific way. You’ll, of course, discover that published reviews rarely possess the level of written details as cited in this venture. It’s great fun, so jump in with me and listen to the Largo as you read.
Consider also that a critic provides a subjective informed opinion — did she enjoy it and why? How is the venue rated? Is it worth the ticket price? Where’s the best place to sit in the theatre? How are the leads and understudies? Do you have any comments on the technical aspects, like lighting and sound? Are there any featured luminaries or new superstars? What generated excitement?
This article provides a musical analysis of the Largo movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, demonstrating how a critic conceptualizes and critiques an artistic work through a meta-critical analytical process. That is, implementing multiple approaches to analyze an artwork. Citations are provided for those interested in exploring aesthetic theories further. With the recording you hear is a rolling score for those who read music notation.
Musical works are frequently examined through linear and harmonic analysis, requiring significant expertise in musical structures, musical elements, and their manipulation. Elements include pitch & melody, timbre, rhythm, form, harmony, dynamics, and subsets of these areas. The analyst also examines predominate elements expressing the work’s meaning. For example, in the famous cello solo from The Swan from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, the melody is the predominant element expressing meaning–the melody evokes feelings of sadness, reflection, grace, and beauty.
In a disco tune like You Should Be Dancing from Saturday Night Fever, rhythm is arguably the predominant element expressing meaning–the driving beat gets everyone dancing.
Analyzing the Largo from Dvořák’s familiar New World Symphony can be best accomplished by utilizing the rich and often disparate and contrasting aesthetic theories of Ernst Gombrich and Susanne Langer. Their systems work just as well with visual and other performing arts in providing means to obtain a sense of a work’s richness and meaning. Applying Susanne K. Langer’s conceptual framework to analyze the ambiguities and meanings in the Largo (Second Movement) from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor leads the listener to explore fascinating images. We enter the realm of human expression colorfully represented, exemplified, and magnified by the powerful structural elements of music.
The Largo creates a virtual world within itself through its formal structures, expressing feelings associated with nostalgia, homesickness, death, and a yearning for the afterlife and, perhaps, better times. According to Anton Seidl, conductor of the NY Philharmonic Society orchestra for the 1893 world premiere of the work at Carnegie Hall, “It is not a good name, New World Symphony — it is homesickness, home longing (Biancolli 1947, 240).”
The Largo has been described as a musical stepchild of an opera that Dvořák considered writing in America, based on Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. The slow second movement, entitled Largo, is suggested by the funeral scene of Minnehaha. Included here is one of the most famous of all melodies in music. Today, many know it as Goin’ Home, due to subsequent arrangements of the music for chorus with text; Dvorak denied using any actual American melodies, composing instead in the spirit of American music (Bernstein 1966, 151). The emotive images are over-determined, helping to create various human feelings that cohabitate with the vital import (Langer 1953, 52).
In this case, expressing an idea comprised of specific human feelings and images is the ruling purpose of art (Langer 1953, 52). The purpose of art is to present an idea through an articulate symbol such as music. The composer has organized the semblance of events to constitute a “purely and completely experienced reality, a piece of virtual life (Langer 1953, 221, 228).” The music exists in a virtual world of its own. The sentience or feelings expressed are among the work’s formal properties and exist regardless of the listener’s characteristics. The expression of particular human feelings permeates the whole structure, and the structure articulates the ideas conveyed (Langer 1953, 52).
The musical work’s formal properties and codes profoundly affect the listener’s experience. A careful study of the formal properties of this music enables one to be fully responsive to it. Symbols express feelings created by the music and are defined wherein the music exists objectively when presented to us (Langer 1953, 211). An occurrent art, music exists when it is heard (Langer 1953, 121).
In the writings of French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy, one discovers that he, like Langer, believes that music expresses human feelings. Furthermore, Debussy emphasized nature as an essential source of inspiration for expression in music. In 1903, he wrote, “Music is a mysterious form of mathematics whose elements are derived from the infinite. Music is the expression of the movement of the waters, the play of the curves described by changing breezes. There is nothing more musical than a sunset. He who feels what he sees will find no more beautiful example of development in all that book which, alas, musicians read but too little–the book of nature (Vallas 1967, 8).”
The commanding form of the Largo is reflected in its primary rhythmic content (Langer 1953, 29). The pulse is slow, steady, somber, and expressively consistent with the total feeling of the work and its vital import. The semblance of organic movement represented in the rhythm helps the music symbolically evoke specific attributes of human emotional life. Rhythmic continuity and repetition arouse and support certain feelings existing in the work. Melodic and rhythmic patterns repeat in the work, giving the composition the appearance of vital growth (Langer 1953, 129).
The primary illusion, or Schein, is carefully shaped by the composer’s work through his artistic imagination to achieve significance and logical expression; in music, this is time in the mode of the movement of audible forms or the illusion of flowing time (Langer 1953, 120, 125). A total Gestalt presents itself as the composer’s creative processes begin, perhaps at the keyboard with wanderings of melody and sounds. It becomes recognizable as the primary or commanding form of the work. The central significance, or Idea and its symbol, is the commanding form guiding the artist’s judgment in the work’s composition (Langer 1953, 121, 122). Under the influence of the total Idea and after having seized upon a motif consisting of powerful melodic patterns and essential rhythmic content, Dvorak composed every part of the Largo.
Trained in Western European traditions, Dvořák composed the New World Symphony while visiting America. Inspired by America’s natural beauty and indigenous folk music, he grasped his Idea and created a symphonic tribute. The imposing character of the work’s themes and their construction support and emphasize the feelings expressed. Romanticist principles concerning the citation of those themes and the ambiguities invoked by the unique treatment of period devices allow for exceptional consistency and effects, supporting the work’s vital import or meaning.
The non-discursive meanings of the music consist of imagery in the virtual world of this music. Musical devices are assembled in seemingly incongruous relationships to abstract their usual musical associations. Musical devices are abstracted and given new embodiment in unreal instances to set them free from their typical uses. Musical elements and their relationships are abstracted, making them appear in a particular vital import consisting of the feelings and meanings expressed. Peculiarities of previously accepted musical convention function to provoke oblique thought while acting as symbols to express human feelings (Langer 1953, 223); that is, Dvořák’s use of specific musical elements with their ambiguous relationships evoke thoughts consistent with the vital import, serving to encourage the listener to interpret “depth meanings” or to “read between the lines (Langer 1953, 51).” The creation of sentience subjugates the non-discursive meanings emanating from the elements of the music. The sentience and human feelings expressed are associated with loneliness, homesickness, and Heavenly rewards. These feelings reflect the work’s vital import and significance.
In a primary conceptual mode, the elements from which music emanates consist of twelve tones organized in almost infinite combinations. Through this vast mathematical language, the individual composer, the mind and heart with something to say, expresses and communicates to us (Bernstein 1966, 34). The composer organizes these elements. Upon exercising a structural analysis of a composition, one realizes the Urlinie, or syntax of discursive elements (Langer 1953, 124). Working within the Romantic period, tonal relationships, this sum of scattered forces (Vallas 1967, 8) form, harmonic qualities, and timbre create the primary illusion of time while expressing specific human feelings.
The carefully crafted form and content direct the listener to understand the primary illusion in one way. Fixing abstract relationships to feelings expressed in the work and visualization of the non-discursive representations of complex relationships that exist furthermore direct the listener to understand the vital import or meaning of the work.
The ambiguities of this music are solved, in part, through a study of the assimilation of the primary illusion of time and secondary illusions from other art forms. In this piece, the composer creates abstract relationships between sounds and incorporates illusions from other art forms that appear as secondary illusions or echoes; all coexist to create the primary illusion of time in the mode of the movement of audible forms. While the illusion of time with its critical sound components exists in this virtual world, poetry’s primary illusion of life with human feelings of loneliness, religious pensiveness, nostalgia, and homesickness emerges. Visual images from the art form of painting appear as echoes. The composer utilizes a variety of devices to “produce and sustain the essential illusion, to set it off clearly from the surrounding world of actuality and articulate its form to the point where it coincides unmistakably with forms of feeling and living (Langer 1953, 67-68).” The composer skillfully sustains the illusion, sets it off from reality, and demonstrates its elements’ essential relationships. The music’s primary illusion determines the work’s substance and character.
In contrast, secondary illusions endow it with “richness, elasticity, and wide freedom of creation that makes real art so hard to hold in the meshes of theory (Langer 1953, 51).” These elements help produce and support the primary illusion, are factors in the semblance, and are virtual themselves. The context of the music determines the elements’ properties, and all elements of the work support the primary illusion. The almost infinite combinations of elements, including the abstraction of sound, musical devices, and secondary illusions, add richness and fecundity to the form (Langer 1953, 84).
In the Largo, human feelings and emotional content are expressed as a direct echo of poetry’s primary illusion of life. Brasses and low woodwinds open the movement in lush Db major in one bar pianissimo, sustained phrases. These instruments are orchestrated to support a reflective, fecund, and satisfying mood.
Elegant, lush, and muted strings follow, breaking into a divisi-enhanced chordal structure, preparing a clear, rich but subdued background for the English Horn’s first representation of the theme, Goin’ Home. Attribution to a typical Spiritual song like Goin’ Home appears as a secondary illusion from painting in the mode of a scene, evoking the realization of visual space in the listener’s imagination. (W. A. Fisher, an American student of Dvorak, composed a song entitled Goin’ Home arranged for baritone solo and chorus, using his text) (Bernstein 1966, 159). For the listener cognizant of Goin’ Home‘s text, the emotive images of life are even more vital. One imagines the lonely sufferer singing soulfully as he toils, wistfully reminiscing about his homeland and perhaps better times in Heaven after death. The English Horn is chosen as a solo instrument due to its cutting, nasal, wailing, and emotionally charged sound, supporting the sentience. Its double-reed attributes allow it to be heard over the string accompaniment while playing in its lower, tenor range of the harmony. Evocative references emerge from the sound of the instruments and melody—inferred texts function as echoes from poetry’s primary illusion, that of life.
Like an echo from visual art, the sentience of the work is supported from within the melodic style. The central lyrical theme utilized in the Largo is arranged using a pentatonic scale, referencing non-Western European styles such as American Indian, Asian, or African music. The modal nature of the theme’s structure elicits uncertainty, adding evocative color to the emotional landscape. Rehearsal number two introduces a passionate theme arranged in the Aeolian mode, added to the collection of modal music. Visual references to indigenous American cultures are strongly represented, evoking one to imagine Native Americans dancing; thus, echoes from dance.
A brief transitional section follows, utilizing ambiguous borrowed chord relationships. The sounds created amplify images of loneliness and feelings of loss and uncertainty. The chordal path leaves the home base of Db, not only using secondary dominants for color and effect but borrowing tonic chords of other keys. Ending in Db with grand fortissimo brass and timpani chords, the string section continues the melodic line, utilizing a counter melody played by the violins and cellos over a pedal point contrabass pitch of Db. Despite the many dissonances occurring when chords and melody change over a single note, the cursory device of the pedal point helps maintain a feeling of transition and somberness. Ultimately, the strings fade to a whisper. At the same time, the somber English Horn restates the first theme, slightly modified with assistance from the bassoons and strings, thereby creating the emotional climax of the first portion of the movement. This section is a transitional segment, arguably referring philosophically to man’s mortality.
The French Horns interrupt the mood with a German hunting horn series. A new, quasi-Native American triplet-motion melody emerges in C# minor, accompanied by string tremolos. The sentiment increases intensity, leading toward a temporary emotional high, followed by a stately but soulful clarinet-led melodic theme accompanied by a walking, rhythmic contrabass line.
The dark tone color of the clarinet with its straight, vibratoless sonority is particularly evocative of solemn, poignant emotion. The walking bass line is rigorous with its large skips and march-like stature. After a brief and lighter-sounding flute-led counter melody, the Meno section introduces a new theme led by the clarinets, now accompanied by similar walking bass line notes performed by the cellos in a tremolo fashion.
The oboe opens in C# major with a theme in triplet motion. This brief section represents a variation of the triplet quasi-Native American theme stated earlier. The mood is that of building intensity and, ultimately, great elation. The listener envisions the movement in this echo from dance and experiences the music’s sentience with feelings of joy and happiness when one finally returns home or to a Heavenly reward. The orchestra gloriously explicates its fervor.
The music quickly leaves these feelings of joy, shifting back to C# minor, C #’s parallel major, a symbolic return perhaps to one’s mundane and difficult existence. This conventional transition back to C# minor quickly places the original Goin’ Home theme’s restatement into Db major. The enharmonic relationship provides for a smooth change, solidifying the listener into nostalgia, homesickness, and, perhaps, melancholy. The English Horn sings Goin’ Home one last time. The violin and viola double the next portion of the melodic line. The nasal quality of the viola adds resonance and piquancy to the sentience, played over the sustained contrabass Db figure harmonized in a perfect fourth with the cello. The interval of the fourth evokes sadness with its openness and lack of harmonic color. The fourth also relates to the traditional plagal or amen cadence, concluding a traditional hymn or prayer song. The listener experiences the pain of the displaced sufferer as he finishes his lonely, hopeful orison. The movement closes much as it began with sustained, pianissimo brass chord figures. The song ends beautifully, utilizing hunting horn fifths in the strings over the sustained Db in the bassoons. The Largo strays only briefly from the primary key of C# minor while tonal centers are carefully maintained to achieve a close feeling of belonging. These key relationships support the emotive elements comprising the work’s vital import.
According to Gombrich
Understanding the basis of Dvorak’s inspiration, the music of African Americans, Native American folk songs, and American composers such as Stephen Foster assists in the interpretative process. The expressive nature of these types of American music and their characteristic qualities attracted Dvorak’s interest. Furthermore, Dvořák’s use of indigenous dotted rhythms and syncopes are among the striking features representing one facet of American influence on this work.
Considering that Dvořák was a late Romantic era composer with Western European training creates listeners’ expectations. The sound of violins, chromatic harmonies, beautiful melodies, and rich, expressive characters are expected. When considering the range of chromatic possibilities available to composers of the period, Dvorak’s limited use of chromaticism (he stays near Db and its C# enharmonic) presents a certain ambiguity. This limited use of chromaticism serves as a device to maintain focus on the melodic aspect of the piece with its expressive and emotive elements. The movement of melody and harmony over a simple pedal point accompaniment evokes a Native American flavor, enhanced by the modal character of the melodic line, all arranged, however, in late-Romantic Western European style. True to Western European musical tradition, the poco meno mosso presents a beautiful, brooding tune attributable to Dvorak’s experience as a conservatory student engrossed in the works of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or Wagner. The fourth tune at rehearsal number four is reminiscent of an old French jig, suggesting more evidence of Dvorak’s Western European influences (Bernstein 1966, 161).
The Largo and the entire symphony in three movements are arranged for a full symphony orchestra. Ideally, more than 100 highly skilled musicians perform it live. This implies the presence of a great range of possibilities in the treatment of orchestral devices, solo instruments, tonal color, timbre, convention, depth, range, and rhythm. The symphony orchestra represents the epitome of instrumental media with woodwinds, brasses, strings, and percussion. In true Romantic Western European tradition, Dvořák fully utilizes the orchestra’s capabilities with particular attention to his choice of solo or melody instruments. The melancholy sound of the English Horn and clarinet “sing” the poignant Goin’ Home theme. The timpani supports the passion evoked by the strings and brasses, accentuating and intensifying the elation expressed. The title New World Symphony invokes expectations of music depicting the discovery of the “new world,” with all the attributed excitement. The listener expects that the work is presented within a limited context set in conventional, 19th-century symphonic forms. The subtitle of the second movement, Largo, implies a slow pace, probably in the slowest of the principal divisions of tempo, placed often between tempo markings of adagio and andante (Randel 1986, 436). A slow tempo connotes somberness, pensiveness, and a generally subdued mood. Knowing that the funeral scene of the Native American Minnehaha inspired Dvorak adds to the expectation of a slow tempo (Dvořák called this movement “Funeral in the Forest”). Most who listen to the work recognize the song Goin’ Home from the Spiritual genre, picturing field hands or plantation workers singing in the moonlight. Visual images are evoked upon hearing the melody, referring to the human condition with its suffering, death, religion, and spiritual themes. The synesthesia or splashing of impressions from one sense modality to another (Gombrich 1969, 366) helps the beholder experience the music as fully as possible and, for the astute beholder, attain fulfilled expectations.
An understanding and study of the technical aspects of the music are critical to the viewer’s schema development. Listening to what we know to be a Romantic work modifies expectations accordingly. The beholder expects musical images to be presented in a sentimental, colorful, chromatic but disciplined manner with the mimesis of reality presented in glorified detail (Gombrich 1969, 11), while unrelated musical elements are brought into seemingly incongruous and ambiguous relationships. Historically, humankind saw the world through religion, mythology, and dynastic hierarchies. In the Romantic era of music, humanity expressed freely, proclaiming the divine nature of free man to glorify the individual spirit with freedom from formality and stylization (Bernstein 1966, 114). Within the constraints of Romantic period music, the composer uses musical devices to create effects.
Rules for the constancy of shape or form (Gombrich 1969, 52) are carefully expedited by the composer and affect the way we regress toward images created by the sounds (Gombrich 1969, 214, 215). These images are scaled appropriately and logically to appear realistic; the music contains considerable depth and perspective.
Gombrich recognizes the need for careful study of form. Understanding realities inherent in the precise manners in which tones interconnect helps one realize that music is conceived in tonality and in the sense of a tonal magnetic center with subsidiary tonal relationships. We cannot hear two isolated tones lacking context without immediately imputing tonal meaning to them. Beholders may differ in how they infer tonal meaning, but it is inferred nonetheless (Bernstein 1966, 12). Dvořák relies heavily on the effectiveness of his melodies and themes as form and their part in creating images via sound. This contrasts with Beethoven’s composition, where he skillfully utilizes small bits of motivic material to create magnificent architecture. Dvorak uses melody as a form to give the work unity, continuity, and dramatic effect (Bernstein 1966, 152).
Dvořák’s treatment of melody is ambiguous when one considers the technical tradition of Western music in which he is fluent. Modal music is used to help create visual evocations of American Indians and the plight of the displaced Africans. His use of the pentatonic scale is based on the modes of ancient music, inherently evoking particular expressive qualities of form and color (Gombrich 1969, 374). This free, Grecian approach to melodic treatment contrasts with the strict Egyptian adherence to traditional musical mores (Gombrich 1969, 126). Furthermore, using melody to evoke and articulate visual space removes creative constraints typically attributed to the visual artist. This music discovers uncharted regions explorable in the universe of sound (Gombrich 1969, 358).
It is no accident that human feelings are depicted metaphorically with images created by the work’s melody, harmony, rhythm, and other technical qualities. These devices direct the beholder in experiencing the composer’s intent, provoking the realization of human feelings, including “pleasant subjects of joy and triumph (Gombrich 1969, 371-373. Excerpt from a quote from eighteenth-century critic Jonathan Richardson).”
Gombrich’s theoretical ideas assist the beholder in developing a schema for interpreting Dvorak’s Largo based on life experience, cultural biases, knowledge of humanity and musical styles, and information acquired through studying other Romantic music, genres, and media. We also possess natural and psychological Gestalten tendencies to experience music in somewhat predictable ways. Music provokes the beholder’s imagination by depicting an impressive array of seemingly incongruous images in realistic clarity. With scrutiny and systematic study, the images present themselves.
Comparison and development of a meta-critical analysis
Langer approaches music as an art form of human expression using specific devices to support those feelings. Like Leonard Bernstein, she recognizes music’s direct connection with emotional expression (Bernstein 1966, 12). She provides an extensive vocabulary for discussing how devices are assembled to create specific images supporting the work’s meaning or vital import. One philosophical challenge with her approach is the contention that music possesses inherent qualities existing despite the listener’s background; if the listener does not understand, he lacks the astuteness to comprehend. Gombrich emphasizes responsibility for the beholder’s role in the artistic experience, implying that different listeners may experience the music uniquely because an inherent meaning does not necessarily exist.
Langer or Gombrich do not discuss specific musical devices to the extent that they discuss poetry and visual art. A thorough knowledge of music is necessary to cogently draw attention to and analyze ambiguities in terms of period style, melodic line, melodic inference, phrasing, dynamics, tempo, contrapuntal motion, key relationships, orchestral timbre, harmonic implications, rhythmic syncope, form, motif, and other structural elements of the music. However, aesthetic theories provide a framework from which one determines and defines the meaning of the musical devices and, ultimately, the artwork’s meaning.
Application of a new theory comprised of both approaches, accompanied by knowledge of the art form, provides the artistic observer with robust vocabulary and meta-critical tools for interpretation. A complete and successful understanding of art evolves if one ascribes to this merge of aesthetic theory approaches. At the same time, careful study of both the artwork and the human participant can ascribe full meaning. Technical aspects of the work create specific effects and affect, while the listener’s participation through the expectation of probable consequences experiences the music (Meyer 1956, 29). The artwork exists and expresses its meaning in conjunction with the participation of the listener or beholder.
Overall, Langer provides more specific tools than Gombrich for interpreting musical artworks. Langer’s singularly powerful ideas describe the illusion of each art form and how they appear in different media. Similarly, Gombrich provides his concept of synesthesia in explaining what Langer defines as illusion. That music’s primary illusion is time in the mode of audible forms aptly describes the structure and has significant ramifications. Illusion is a palpable theory providing the aesthetician with practical tools for interpretation. Claude Debussy noted this phenomenon of illusion when he stated that art must remain an illusion “lest it becomes utilitarian and as dreary as a workshop.” He asks, “Do not the masses as well as the select few seek therein [in art] oblivion, which is in itself a form of deception? Though the smile of Mona Lisa probably never existed, still, its charm is eternal (Vallas 1967, 12).” Langer presents the virtual reality of art as a critical component of her beliefs, endowing the artwork an existence in its world. Gombrich defines illusion as a discursive device in art forms, not recognizing the virtual existence of a work. For him, art cannot function without the beholder or human participant.
A certain satisfaction is derived from an analysis, according to Langer; one senses that the exercise is complete. However, according to Gombrich’s approach, an analysis of the Largo leaves one aware that the music was interpreted less imperiously. Langer’s approach, Leonard Bernstein’s intuition and musical expertise, and Gombrich’s critical emphasis on the human participant provide a practical, composite set of interpretative tools.
Bernstein, Leonard. 1966. The Infinite Variety of Music. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Biancolli, Robert Bagar and Louis. 1947. Complete Guide to Orchestral Music. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers.
Gombrich, Ernst Hans. 1969. Art and Illusion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Langer, Susanne K. 1953. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Meyer, Leonard B. 1956. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Randel, Don Michael, ed. 1986. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, MA & London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Vallas, Leon. 1967. The Theories of Claude Debussy. New York: Oxford University Press
Dvořák: Symphony № 9, “From The New World” – II – Largo