What makes a piece sound “American”? Dvořák thought that incorporating elements of plantation songs and Native American tunes would give American music a nationalistic identity.
Dvořák first came in contact with plantation songs through his friendship with musical copyist Harry T. Burleigh. His grandfather a former slave, Burleigh grew up hearing plantation songs. Burleigh would often sing these old plantation songs to Dvořák in his home, inspiring the composer to use these sounds in his own compositions. One example of a work influenced by these plantation songs is his New World Symphony. Although he never actually quotes material from these songs, Dvořák allowed the pentatonicism prevalent in these pieces to carry over into his own work. A pentatonic scale consists of five notes rather than the usual seven and is the prominent scale used in folk music.
Before he had even come to America, Dvořák was inspired by the prairies found in Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha. It was not until he saw first-hand the expanse of the American prairie that he felt a need to create an American pastoral. Characteristics of this American pastoral that relate to this idea of the wide open space of the prairie can be seen in the drones, simplicity, and wide intervals also found in his New World Symphony and other works.
Listen to the New World Symphony here. After listening to this piece, let me know your thoughts on whether or not it sounds “American”.