The Bohemian Antonin Leopold Dvorak was born at Nelahozeves, a village on the outskirts of Prague. His father was an amateur musician, the village innkeeper and butcher a trade to which the young Dvorak would be apprenticed for three years. Through the patronage of an Uncle the lad was able to study music and in 1857 was accepted as a pupil at the Prague Organ School. As a musician he gained first hand experience playing the viola under Smetana and Wagner in the orchestra of the newly opened Prague Provisional Theatre.
Having composed his first symphony in 1865 his music came to the notice of the influential Viennese critic Hanslick and then Brahms and from there on his fame throughout Europe gathered a steady momentum and eventually reached the United States of America.
Dvorak's popularity in England may be summed up by the references which Sir Edward Elgar made in letters to his friend Dr. C.W. Buck. In September 1884 when referring to the Worcester Three Choirs Festival … "I wish you could have heard Dvorak's music, it is simply ravishing … so tuneful and clever - I cannot describe it, it must be heard." A month later …"Dvorak is coming to conduct his Symphony in D (No. 6 ) in Birmingham on Thursday so we are on our mettle somewhat." A notice in the Birmingham Daily Post … "the orchestra (with Elgar among the 1st violins) received due credit; when the Bohemian Master entered he was received with a hearty of applause."
Dvorak visited England many times. At the time of successful premier of the 7th Symphony in London in 1885 Dvorak was having difficulties with his publisher Simrock of Berlin, so much so that he sent a number of his compositions to Novellos of London, including his 8th Symphony which subsequently received the sub-title "The English".
In this work Dvorak essentially frees himself from the formal confines of the "Sonata Form" and composes a seemingly spontaneous flow of thematic ideas, and with the changes of Political and National boundaries over the years, today we describe Dvorak's work as essentially Czech.
Although the Symphony's title gives it as being set in the Major Key, Dvorak chooses to open his work with a deeply felt theme in G Minor entrusted to the cellos and lower wind (it will return later in the movement). At the end of its seventeen bars it has died away and gently modulates into the Major, the solo flute leading into a new rhythmic theme. The orchestration and harmonic support increases, and with the flute theme taken over by the French Horns the music builds to a climax out of which grows a third theme introduced "marcarto" by the violas and cellos in thirds. The music proceeds, with themes 3 and 2 competing with each other, to a full orchestral climax where undoubtedly the flute theme (No. 2) wins. But with the double basses dropping to an F#the key now shifts into B Minor for a fluent march-like fourth theme given to the flutes and clarinets in thirds against triplet figures from 2nd violins and cellos and a counter melody from the violas. This proceeds with a limited orchestration through rising and falling dynamics into a fifth two bar theme of a more compliant texture.
Thereafter the brass picks out fragmentary pieces of the second and third themes which build to a climax and inevitable demise accompanied by shimmering violin semi-quavers.
Now Dvorak returns to the movement's very opening theme followed by the flute theme. A crescendo leading up to a fortissimo inverted dominant seventh chord in F Major leads directly into the development section during which Dvorak subjects all his themes to fragmentary re-appearances throughout the orchestra.
Staccato chromatic figurations produce an energetic urgency to the movement's progress until a fortissimo G Minor chord out of which the trumpets unmistakably re-introduce the movement's opening theme, underpinned by string chromatic scale passages.
The tempo falls and an air of relaxation pervades the music with the cor-anglais (the only appearance in the whole symphony) gently reprising the flute theme, then taken over by the clarinet and flute. The music now begins to build into a thematic, rhythmic tour de force until the final chord.
The movement opens in C Minor with a triplet figure on the upbeat for strings alone. This melancholic figure becomes less so when the flutes, in reply, trip lightly in with a three note demi-semiquaver figure.
This introductory music reaches its inevitable climax, fades and modulates into a folk-song like theme in C Major. Flutes and oboes sing away to a delicate accompaniment throughout the orchestra, one of Dvorak's many magical moments. Eventually the solo violin is heard picking off fragments of the folksy tune.
This has all been very pianissimo and hushed, but the impatient full orchestra cannot be restrained and bursts forth with an impressive rendering of the folk tune, an exciting climax being reached as the movement's opening theme insists on being a part of the excitement.
But without warning a new more fluid theme is introduced pianissimo by strings alone and sharing a kinship with the movement's opening music and leading to a reprise of that very early flute figure and the flow of the music seems to become "impatient" with the rise and fall in dynamics. The score is now marked "a little more animated" and these early figures and themes come in for a pummelling of triplets with no holds barred until that "folk song" insists on being properly heard, more lushly harmonised than before. A paraphrase of the movement's opening music brings it to a gentle slumbering close.
In G Minor and 3/8 the 1st violins lead straight into the waltz theme on the upbeat. It sweeps along to a triplet woodwind accompaniment and the theme, the phrasing of which, at times carries it over the bar line, adds a flowing and enchanting effect.
The trio section continues in 3/8 but is now in G Major and Dvorak has fun with the metre. The theme which the composer had used in an earlier opera with the improbable title (in some translations) "The Pig Headed Peasant" is given to the flutes and oboes and has two beats to each two bar phrase while the staccato string accompaniment has an insistent three! The harmonic content enriches with the developing orchestration until a brief andante presages the repeat of the opening Allegretto and on completion leads into the molto vivace Coda where Dvorak re-introduces the trio theme but now speeded up in 2/4 and given to clarinets and bassoons; then "head over heels" the orchestra pitches in.
The movement, like the previous one ends in a whisper.
The finale opens with a trumpet fanfare in a brisk 2/4 which reluctantly subsides, and out of its dying moments the tympany gently leads the cellos into the theme, sixteen bars long with each of the eight bars repeated.
There then follow seven variations on this theme, the Coda bursting forth out of the final variant and encapsulating the movement in a headlong furiant right through to the final chord.
Programme notes for BHSO performance, Nov 2002
Written by Roy Saberton
Return to Repertoire list