New World Orders

Everyone knows that Dvořák wrote the New World Symphony. Amber Read explains that it would never have happened without the efforts of two women.

It’s well known that, at the last moment before rehearsals, Antonín Dvořák scrawled the words ‘From the New World’ across the title page of his Ninth Symphony. There is, however, a less-told story behind the creation of this masterpiece, one that involves two women who are often overlooked in the traditional narrative.

The first of these is Jeannette Thurber, the driving force behind the American National Conservatory, established to help the United States foster a national musical identity. Jeannette was a visionary woman with an extraordinary capacity to just get on and make things happen. Everyone knows someone like Jeannette – someone who organises volunteers or drives fundraising events, someone who turns up on the day with a willing pair of hands, but who would never step on to centre stage.

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Jeannette Thurber

Jeannette believed in equal opportunity to a degree that was radical for her time, and not totally accepted in our own. It was because of her that the conservatory was open to men and women of all races, with scholarships offered to minority or disadvantaged groups. Disabled students, such as those who were blind, were also encouraged.

Having set the background pieces in motion, Jeannette needed an internationally recognised musician to lead her National Conservatory. She decided on Antonín Dvořák and pursued him with her customary tenacity.

It’s at this point that we have another woman to thank for the ‘New World’ Symphony: Anna Dvořák. Her husband, Antonín, initially refused Jeannette Thurber’s offer. The composer was 50 years old, a professor at
the Prague Conservatory, and uneasy about uprooting his family and embarking upon a lengthy voyage to a new continent. Jeannette responded by upping the contract to US$15,000 for the year, roughly US$450,000 today, and 25 times the family’s income at the time. Antonín remained non-committal but Anna saw the contract for what it was – an extraordinary opportunity to improve the family’s finances (they had six children under 14) and provide security for their retirement.

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Dvořák and his wife Anna

Another woman of decision and action, Anna decided Antonín’s vacillation had gone on long enough and brought the family to vote on the matter at lunch one day: stay in Prague or head for America. America won out. Anna sat her husband down with the contract and handed him a pen. But merely signing the contract was not enough, and Antonín protested that it wasn’t a definite decision while the contract sat on the table. Anna posted it that day.

Antonín’s agreement required him to give several concerts in that year and the ‘New World’ Symphony was written to be performed at the first of them. Although it’s Antonín Dvořák’s name on the symphony title page, without Anna and Jeannette, continents apart but both visionaries as well as pragmatists, the circumstances that birthed this beloved symphony would never have occurred.

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