Of the European composers most influenced by the spirituals, the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák is perhaps best known. The extent of the influence of the spirituals on Dvořák’s work is sometimes considered controversial, even today. However, as Jack Sullivan, author of New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music points out, Dvořák himself was absolutely clear about how the spirituals – which he discovered towards the end of a distinguished career – influenced all of the music he created from that point on. He also appointed himself as spokesperson for the recognition of the significance of African American folk music. After arriving in the U.S., he told a New York Herald reporter in May, 1893, that “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies,” and he expressed this point of view in public on many occasions.
While he did not use intact melodies from the spirituals in any of his compositions, Dvořák insisted that his work, especially in his New World Symphony, was inspired (“imbued” was the word he himself used) by his immersion in the spirituals, and to a lesser extent other American folk music, such as Indian chants. In another interview with the New York Herald in December, 1893, he explained that “I have not actually used any of the melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the music.”
The most often cited example of the influence of the spirituals on Dvořák’s work is the Largo movement of the New World Symphony. Known as “Goin’ Home,” this emotionally haunting piece, with the main melody played by an English horn, is so much like a spiritual in character that many people today mistakenly assume it to be an original slave song.
John Lovell, Jr. Black Song, the Forge and the Flame: The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual was Hammered Out. New York: Macmillan, 1972, pp. 443-444.
Jack Sullivan. New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, Chapter 1: “The Legacy of the Sorrow Songs.”
John C. Tibbetts (ed.). Dvořák in America 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.