Now I’m not a audiophile: my life does not revolve around music, I didn’t take a single music class in college, and my poor ability at matching pitch after hearing a note within my singing range played on the piano barred me from entry to our school’s chorale--I had hoped if I was just good enough to get in it would provide me with an avenue for improvement, but I guess I was beyond hope. (I should state here my gratitude to the inimitable Dr. Luther for telling me in the most gracious and encouraging manner imaginable that I just didn’t make the cut.) But I do love music dearly. Growing up our family almost always had music playing on the stereo, and my mother and more than half of my eight siblings played at least one instrument well to middling, so I’ve always derived deep pleasure, encouragement, catharsis, and spiritual meaning from music of many forms, and despite my lack of natural talent, sought to deepen my technical understanding of and appreciation for the craft of making music.
One way I’ve done this is to read about pieces of classical music and then play them repeatedly so that I can listen for the use of the elements described in my reading. As I find long classical pieces quite conductive to focusing on the medical writing I do for a living, this makes for very enjoyable synergistic multitasking. At this point I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to Antonin Dvořák’s New World Symphony in the past couple weeks, but the more I listen the more I love it. A first listening makes it obvious why it’s one of the most popular symphonies ever written, regularly being performed around the world, however a closer analysis quickly reveals not only the musical traditions that influenced Dvořák when he composed the piece, but that it would be impossible to underestimate the influence of this work on almost every major American movie score composer in the last century.
Dvořák’s extensive use of leitmotifs, frequently repeated musical phrases, shows him to be following and adapting the methods of Wagner and other musical giants who proceeded him—at the second minute in there is this little bit that reminds one strongly of Ride of the Valkyrie—but there are also sections that clearly set the tone for and inspired the works of many composers after him—at the 4 minute mark there is a section very reminiscent of old western movie scores (we’ll come back to this) but at the 5 minute mark we’re back to Valkyrie. From there on out the rest of the work clearly sets the stage for the works of many other famous American composers.
At 13 minutes in there is a slow section with winds and strings that is strikingly similar to some of John Williams pieces for Star Wars, but also to some segments of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. At 21 minutes there is a similar section that reminds one more of the Hobbit/Shire theme Howard Shore wrote for the score of Peter Jackson's film adaptions of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. At 24 minutes the quick set of notes by the strings and winds reminds one simultaneously of Aaron Copland's Hoe-Down, William's Duel of the Fates, and Wagner’s Valkyrie. The 26th minute sounds just like something from the works of Rogers and Hammerstein, Elmer Bernstein, or Dimitri Tiomkin, and the motif heard here repeats again at 29 minutes and progresses from strings to full orchestration. Then at 30 minutes, and the beginning of the last movement, the opening cello lines sounds SO much like William's JAWS theme one is tempted to say he plagiarized Dvořák, even more so because when the cellos are joined by the winds and sweep into a march it sounds suspiciously like the theme of the ubiquitous dark helmeted servant of a famous evil Emperor. A couple minutes later and we're back from outer space and are watching Native Americans spring an ambush on some cowboys and we'll stick with this feeling of drama in ruggedly grand, wide open, natural settings for the next 5 minutes before the strings and flute bring us sliding along a river in the moonlight, until the return of the motif brings sunrise and danger bursting over the horizon just before the 40 min mark.
Being such an exceptionally beautiful composition it is no wonder that it set the standard and tone for American composers for the next century, especially for those writing music about America. For more information about the composers who followed this style of sweeping dramatic music when composing music meant to reflect the majesty and immensity of America’s diverse landscapes check out the links I’ve provided above, this list of spaghetti western composers, and this article on some of the best ever movies scores for westerns. And while you read, play the piece, and I promise you'll fall in love with it too.