The piece has four movements:
Adagio, 4/8 – Allegro molto, 2/4, E minor
Largo, common time, D-flat major, then later C-sharp minor
Scherzo: Molto vivace – Poco sostenuto, 3/4, E minor
Allegro con fuoco, common time, E minor, ends in E major
Dvořák was interested in Native American music and the African-Americanspirituals he heard in America. As director of the National Conservatory he encountered an African-American student, Harry T. Burleigh, later a composer himself, who sang traditional spirituals to him and said that Dvořák had absorbed their 'spirit' before writing his own melodies. Dvořák stated:
The symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, and premiered on December 16, 1893, at Carnegie Hallconducted by Anton Seidl. A day earlier, in an article published in the New York Herald on December 15, 1893, Dvořák further explained how Native American music had been an influence on this symphony:
In the same article, Dvořák stated that he regarded the symphony's second movement as a "sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera ... which will be based upon Longfellow's [The Song of] Hiawatha" (Dvořák never actually wrote such a piece). He also wrote that the third movement scherzo was "suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance".
In 1893, a newspaper interview quoted Dvořák as saying "I found that the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical", and that "the music of the two races bore a remarkable similarity to the music of Scotland". Most historians agree that Dvořák is referring to the pentatonic scale, which is typical of each of these musical traditions.
In a 2008 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, prominent musicologist Joseph Horowitz asserts that African-Americanspirituals were a major influence on Dvořák's music written in America, quoting him from an 1893 interview in the New York Herald as saying, "In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."Dvořák did, it seems, borrow rhythms from the music of his native Bohemia, as notably in his Slavonic Dances, and the pentatonic scale in some of his music written in America from African-American and/or Native American sources. Statements that he borrowed melodies are often made but seldom supported by specifics. One verified example is the song of the Scarlet Tanager in the Quartet. Michael Steinberg writes that a flute solo theme in the first movement of the symphony resembles the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". Leonard Bernstein averred that the symphony was truly multinational in its foundations.
Dvořák was influenced not only by music he had heard, but by what he had seen, in America. He wrote that he would not have composed his American pieces as he had, if he had not seen America. It has been said that Dvořák was inspired by the American "wide open spaces" such as prairies he may have seen on his trip to Iowa in the summer of 1893. Notices about several performances of the symphony include the phrase "wide open spaces" about what inspired the symphony and/or about the feelings it conveys to listeners.
Dvořák was also influenced by the style and techniques used by earlier classical composers including Beethoven and Schubert. The falling fourths and timpani strokes in the New World Symphony's Scherzo movement evokes the Scherzo of Beethoven's Choral Symphony. In his fourth movement, Dvořák's use of flashbacks to prior movements is reminiscent of Beethoven quoting prior movements as part of the opening Presto of the last movement.
At the premiere in Carnegie Hall, the end of every movement was met with thunderous clapping and Dvořák felt obliged to stand up and bow. This was one of the greatest public triumphs of Dvořák's career. When the symphony was published, several European orchestras soon performed it. Alexander Mackenzie conducted the London Philharmonic Society in the European premiere on June 21, 1894. Clapham says the symphony became "one of the most popular of all time" and at a time when the composer's main works were being welcomed in no more than ten countries, this symphony reached the rest of the musical world and has become a "universal favorite." It was performed [as of 1978] more often "than any other symphony at the Royal Festival Hall, London" and is in "tremendous demand in Japan."