Sunday, December 24, 2017

Boston Camerata, Joel Cohen conducting, "Jesus, the Light of the World."

According to Joel Cohen's notes accompanying the Erato CD, the source of this delightful song is "The Finest of the Wheat: Hymns New and Old for Missionary and Revival Meetings and Sabbath-Schools (Chicago 1890), Geo. D. Elderkin, arr." This is an example of "the revival hymns, with their simple, keyboard-derived harmonies and rollicking refrains" that "displaced many a genuine folksong." Cohen goes on to note:
The opening phrase of this one, published in 1890, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Going Home theme of Dvořák's New World Symphony, composed circa 1893. It is tempting to see the similarity as more than coincidental: was Dvořák in fact familiar with this song? Could he have been reluctant to acknowledge his debt to such a lowbrow source as this?
Anyway, here's the song:

"Lowbrow" or not, I love it.  For comparison, here's the second, largo, movement of Dvořák's Ninth Symphony, From the New World, as performed by the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel conducting. The Going Home theme begins at about 0:40 with the solo English horn:


My first exposure to this exquisite piece of music was on the Boston Pops/Arthur Fiedler LP  album Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music, which my parents bought when I was about nine. As I recall, the liner notes claimed that the Going Home theme was based on a "Negro spiritual." In fact, it isn't. As American Music Preservation tells the story, a "spiritual" with the title Goin' Home, was written by Dvořák's student, William Arms Fisher, and set to the tune of Dvořák's theme. Here's a rendition by the incomparable Paul Robeson:


Getting back to the question: was Dvořák influenced by "Jesus, the Light of the World"? To my ear, there's a similarity, but not a convincing one. Perhaps Dvořák heard the song and the progression of notes stuck in his memory without  a reference to its source. As likely as not, though, as the American Music Preservation piece linked above suggests, it was based on some half-remembered folk theme from Dvořák's native Bohemia. Perhaps, too, he simply made it up.