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You know how it happens—you’re watching YouTube late at night and you are offered the option of hearing a piece of music you know by heart since you were a kid, but you go for it anyway. That happened to me last night and the piece was the second movement of the New World Symphony. This time, as often happens with masterpieces, I heard something new, or, at least, developed a new perspective. The magic that Dvorak weaves in the first seven chords of the piece finally forced me, almost against my will, to go to my basement and get out the score in order to look at this progression and try to gain some better understanding of what was going on. What I found returned me once again to question just how much insight into the composer’s intentions we poor theorists can get by poring over the score or playing it on the piano, hoping our fingers can add to what our eyes are already questioning.

There are, I believe, two overriding questions that must be addressed when thinking about this movement: (1) Why does a composition in D flat major start on an E major chord and (2) Why does a piece that is so lovely begin with such a dark, moody introduction? I’ll take a shot at the second question first.

What comes immediately to mind is the artistic practice of chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and dark. It also reminds me that so many ofvthe great photographs are in black and white, often employing stark contrast. I am also reminded of sweet and sour pork, and, last but certainly not least, Beauty and the Beast. The murky evil of the Beast is well portrayed by the initial movement from an E major triad to Bb in the first inversion, at an anti-tonal distance of a tritone. The darkness of the tuba doubling the bass trombone provides the needed orchestral color. We usually assume, when we hear a triad in root position at the beginning of a piece, that it is a tonic, but here we are immediately challenged to reassess that assumption by the motion to the second chord. The harmonic data presented to us in these first two chords sounds like a backwards motion from a dominant to the Neapolitan 6th. That would point us in the direction of A major, even more so when the progression returns to another E major triad. However, a second surprise motion to a Db major triad places us on what might be considered an altered mediant, but turns out to be a pre-cadential tonic. Another surprise moves us to the A major triad suggested by the opening chords. However, this harmony is not the tonic we were expecting but rather a modally borrowed submediant in Db and is followed by a modally borrowed subdominant that gives us a plagal cadence in the actual key of the piece. This introduction provides a strong harmonic contrast to the pacific material that follows it and provides a plagal cadence that anticipates the many that occur later in the work.

The use of a tonality graph provides us with some interesting visual insight into what is going on here. Close inspection reveals that this progression is a kind of exaggerated version of the classic TSDT pattern. The exaggeration is a result of Dvorak’s use of cross-modal mediant, rather than dominant, relationships. This progression begins three hours below the tonic (E), moves to a point the same distance above the tonic (Bb), returns to the opening chord and then moves to a tonic that does not sound like a tonic until confirmed later by a modally borrowed plagal cadence. How special it is that the use of cross modality and special orchestral color makes darkness out of five consecutive major triads. This functionally vague progression could just as easily cadence on an E major triad, and confuse things even more, but Dvorak saves that motion for the second iteration where it is transposed down a third (starting on Db). Most interesting is the total avoidance of any dominant harmony in the antecedent phrase. The only thing remotely dominant in the consequent phrase is the inner voice passing tone in the penultimate chord that turns out to be the leading tone of the key.

Some light is shed on the answer to the first question when, in measure 22, the woodwinds return with a transposed variant of the opening seven-chord progression that begins on the tonic and contains the same exotic tritone motion to and from #IV6 as well as the same major submediant. It then proceeds to the major subdominant (Gb), not the minor as in the beginning.  The penultimate supertonic (Ebm), with the analogous passing tone in the inner voice, provides a modified plagal cadence that is reminiscent of the penultimate Gbm+6 (Ebm7) in measure 3 only here the passing tone is the leading tone so the cadence is a bit stronger. This progression is essentially the same as the opening except that it begins and ends on the tonic. The tonality graph reveals that both progressions are exactly the same except for the motion to the final chord—a neat trick on Dvorak’s part. One wonders which one he wrote first. By bringing the consequent phrase back eight bars from the end of the movement in the original baritone register Dvorak brackets this strongly tonal piece with dark, strangely beautiful modality that is faintly echoed in the final two pianissimo chords in the basses.