Antonín Dvořák

Symfonier nr 6–9

Antonín Dvořák was born in 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, in Bohemia, and some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should at first have been expected to follow the family trade, as the eldest son. His musical abilities, however, soon became apparent and were encouraged by his father, who in later years abandoned his original trade, to earn something of a living as a zither player. After primary schooling, he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice and was there able to acquire the necessary knowledge of German and improve his abilities as a musician, hitherto acquired at home in the village band and in church. Further study of German and of music at 'Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission in 1857 to the Prague Organ School, where he studied for the following two years.

On leaving the Organ School, Dvořák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzák, an ensemble that was to form the nucleus of the Czech Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor at the theatre, where his operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride had already been performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořák resigned from the orchestra, devoting himself more fully to composition, as his music began to attract favourable local attention. In 1873 he married a singer from the chorus of the theatre and in 1874 became organist of the church of St Adalbert. During this period he continued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a series of compositions that gradually became known to a wider circle, particularly with the success of his Hymnus: Dĕdicové bílé hory (The Heirs of the White Mountain) for the Prague Hlahol Vocal Society.

Further recognition came to Dvořák in 1874, when his application for an Austrian government award brought his music to the attention of Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick in Vienna. The granting of this award for five consecutive years was of material assistance. It was through this contact that, impressed by Dvořák’s Moravian Duets entered for the award of 1877, Brahms was able to arrange for their publication by Simrock, who commissioned the Slavonic Dances, for piano duet. The success of these publications introduced Dvořák’s music to a much wider public, for which it held some exotic appeal. As his reputation grew, there were visits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than might initially have been accorded a Czech composer in Vienna.

In 1883 Dvořák had rejected a tempting proposal that he should write a German opera for Vienna. At home he continued to contribute to Czech operatic repertoire, an important element in re-establishing national musical identity. The invitation to take up a position in New York was another matter. In 1891 he had become professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and in the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, an institution that was intended to foster American music, hitherto dominated by musicians from Europe or largely trained there. Whatever the ultimate success or failure of the venture, Dvořák’s contribution was seen as that of providing a blue-print for American national music, following the example of Czech national music, which owed so much to him. There were musical results in his own work, notably in his Symphony ‘From the New World’, and chamber music of the period, works that rely strongly on the European tradition that he had inherited, while making use of melodies and rhythms that might be associated in one way or another with America. By 1895 Dvořák was home for good, resuming work at the Prague Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. His final works included a series of symphonic poems and two more operas, to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.

Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60, B. 112

1. Allegro non tanto
2. Adagio
3. Scherzo: Presto
4. Finale: Allegro con spirito

Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60, for the conductor Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1880, but the prejudices of certain members of the orchestra towards the Czechs and their unwillingness to allow the inclusion of a new work by a new Czech composer so soon after the successful performance in 1879 of the third Slavonic Rhapsody allowed Adolf Čech, once the composer’s colleague in the St Cecilia Orchestra during student days, to give the first performance in Prague early in 1881. The following year August Manns conducted the symphony at a Crystal Palace concert in London, and three weeks later Richter, to whom the work was finally dedicated, added a further London performance of the work he had commissioned. The first Vienna performance was given in 1883 by Wilhelm Gericke for the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The symphony is scored for the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, with piccolo, four horns, a pair of trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani and strings.

The similarities between the symphony and Brahms’s work in the same key have been pointed out, although Dvořák’s symphony bears the stamp of his own genius at its height and may be heard as a tribute to the man who had earlier given him timely help in his career. The symphony opens with repeated accompanying chords played by horns and divided violas, above which the principal theme gradually appears. There is a superb slow movement in the key of B flat, followed by a Scherzo bearing the subtitle Furiant, a Czech peasant dance, with a contrasting trio, pierced by the piccolo in pastoral mood. The strings open the Finale with a long-drawn Brahmsian theme, joined by the wind and swelling soon to triumphant dimensions in a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, B. 141

1. Allegro maestoso
2. Poco adagio
3. Scherzo: Vivace - Poco meno mosso
4. Finale: Allegro

Dvořák wrote his Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, for the London Philharmonic Society, after his successful appearance in London in March 1884. He started work, it seems in December, and the symphony was completed by the middle of March 1865, to be performed in London on 22 April at St James’s Hall. Four years later Hans von Bülow conducted the symphony in Berlin so successfully that Dvořák decorated the autograph score with a portrait of the conductor, adding below the words ‘Glory to you! You brought this work to life’. The work owes something to the impression on Dvořák of Brahms’s Symphony in F major and that composer’s remark that he supposed the new symphony would be quite different from the Symphony in D major (No. 6).

The first movement of Symphony No. 7 opens in a sombre mood, but even the first theme, played by violas and cellos, has the suggestion of Bohemian inspiration about it, although this is possibly the least obviously national of the five later symphonies of Dvořák and the influence of Brahms remains clear enough, particularly in the second subject, introduced by flute and clarinet. The second movement starts with a fine clarinet melody in F major, leading to a further melody for flutes and oboes that ventures into new harmonies. There is a new theme introduced by violin and cello, followed by the French horn, and the melodies we have heard are then developed. The following Scherzo is highly typical of the composer in its rhythms, its double theme preserving the darker mood of the whole symphony, while the trio breathes an air of country serenity. The final movement shows yet again Dvořák’s considerable powers of invention. A first theme of great potential leads to a second emphatic melody, of which the woodwind have provided a foretaste, and a third theme in A major is introduced by the cellos. The movement contains much that seems replete with tragic foreboding, before the triumphant return of the key of D major with which the symphony ends.

Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88, B. 163

1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio
3. Allegretto grazioso - Molto vivace
4. Allegro ma non troppo

In 1884 Dvořák had bought a small property at Vysoka and it was there that in the autumn of 1889 he wrote his Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88, celebrating in the superscription to the score his admission as a member of the Emperor Franz Josef’s Czech Academy of Science, Literature and the Arts. The first performance was in Prague in February 1890, followed by a performance in London under the composer’s direction in April and in June in Cambridge, where he received an honorary doctorate. The symphony was published in London by Novello, strong supporters of Dvořák, whose Vienna publisher Simrock had proved readier to buy shorter pieces, for which there was always a ready market. A performance under Richter in Vienna had to wait until January 1891.

The symphony, scored for an orchestra that includes piccolo, cor anglais and tuba, in addition to pairs of other woodwind instruments, four horns, trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings, is imbued with the spirit of Bohemia. The first movement opens with a fine G minor theme for cellos, clarinets, bassoon and horn, followed by a cheerful interruption from the flute and a rhythmic additional theme played by divided violas and cellos. There is throughout the movement a mood that changes from major to minor, the former eventually predominating in a closing section. The slow movement brings a similar ambivalence, the three flats of the opening key signature apparently an afterthought for music which is now in E flat major, before reaching C minor, contradicted by the woodwind. The key signature is replaced before long by a happy C major melody for flute and oboe. The third movement is in the form of a graceful G minor waltz, with a contrasting trio section from Dvořák’s opera The Stubborn Lovers. The trumpets introduce the finale, their strong opening bars followed by a gently lilting cello theme, the subject of a series of variations, interrupted by a more sinister element. There is a return to the lyrical principal theme of the movement before the excitement of the closing section, as the orchestra is urged on by the French horns at their brassiest.

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”

1. Adagio - Allegro molto
2. Largo
3. Molto vivace
4. Allegro con fuoco

The nine symphonies of Dvořák are variously numbered, since he tried to discard earlier attempts at the form. The last of the symphonies, published as No.5, but in fact the ninth, has the explanatory title ‘From the New World’ and has the same scoring as Symphony No. 6, with the addition of a cor anglais, a triangle and cymbals. It was written in the early months of 1893 and first performed at Carnegie Hall on 16 December of the same year by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Anton Seidl. It was an immediate success.

Dvořák was deeply influenced by America and by the ‘Indian’ and ‘Negro’ music he heard, as well as the songs of Stephen Foster. In Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, which he said he had first read in translation thirty years before, he found an expression of American identity that also took its due place in his symphony. He made it clear that all the themes were original, although shaped by the use of particular rhythmic and melodic features of music of the New World. Nevertheless the symphony retains an inevitable air of Bohemia.

Mrs Jeanette Thurber, who had invited Dvořák to America and whose resources lay at the back of the new National Conservatory, where she offered scholarships to encourage the recruitment of students of any race, colour or social status, had hoped that Hiawatha might form the basis of an American opera from the composer she had hired. The slow movement of the symphony, with its famous cor anglais solo, has been associated with the blessing of the cornfields in Longfellow’s poem, or with Hiawath’s Wooing, and his journey home with his bride, while some have found echoes of the burial of Minnehaha in the forest. The third movement is more clearly associated with Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, when Pau-Puk-Keewis entertains the wedding guests with his dancing, ‘Whirling, spinning round in circles, / Leaping o’er the guests assembled’, energetic activity contrasted with a more properly Bohemian trio section. The final movement, with its reference to what has passed, forms a brilliant conclusion, ending in the quietest possible sustained wind chord.

Keith Anderson