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Background music

We all know the meditative horn solo which used to sell Hovis bread and many of us remember the brassy music with which Soviet ice-skaters traditionally opened their act: Dvor k's New World Symphony.

But the full title under which Dvor k's work sailed for its New York premi re in 1893 was "From the New World", and behind that "from" lies a tale with a riddle. When wealthy New York art patron Jeanette Thurber founded a music conservatory for Afro-American students, she decided it had to put an established European composer at its head, and Antonin Dvor k - who had won fame as a champion of his native Czech music- was the man who took the bait (a salary 20 times what he'd been earning in Prague).

"I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies," he declared. "These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America, and your composers must turn to them." And this majestic symphony was indeed acclaimed for drawing on native sources. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" makes a thinly veiled appearance; there are moments when you can almost smell the prairies. Yet Dvor k was soon denying any direct links: "That nonsense about my having made use of 'Indian' and 'Negro' themes - that is a lie."

But it is a fact that while he was composing this work he had much help from one of his black students. "It was my privilege", said HT Burleigh, who went on to become a notable composer, "repeatedly to sing some of the old plantation songs for him at his home." Burleigh even gave chapter and verse: the subsidiary G minor theme in the first movement, with its unusual flatted seventh. "I feel sure that the Doctor caught this peculiarity..."

So, who knows? But as one critic aptly put it, "if this symphony is not America's tribute to Music, it is surely Music's most beautiful tribute to America". Listen to Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic on Dvor k: Symphony No 9 (DG 457 651-2) and judge for yourself.

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