(click through for the rest of the recording)
program notes I wrote for DSO’s fall concert.
Antonín Dvořák (September 8, 1841 – May 1, 1904), considered one of the most versatile composers of his time, conducted the premiere of his Symphony in G Major in Prague on February 2, 1890. In the summer of 1889, Dvořák retired to Vysoká, and, inspired by the rolling countryside and bucolic setting, composed his eighth symphony in just two and a half months. The symphony marks a departure from traditional formal and harmonic structures and from the dark passion of Dvořák’s contemporaries, but its cheeriness has been well loved by performers and audiences alike.
Dvořák was the eldest of nine children born in Nelahozeves (near Prague, then part of Bohemia in the Austrian Empire, now the Czech Republic). His father, an innkeeper and butcher, encouraged his musical talent through primary school, and when young Dvořák was sent to live with his uncle to become an apprentice butcher, he continued studying organ, piano, and violin. At the age of sixteen, his father relented and allowed him to pursue music as a career, under the condition that he become an organist. Dvořák wrote his first string quartet at the age of twenty, two years after graduating from the only organ school in Prague.
A few years after his marriage to Anna Čermáková, Dvořák and the already established composer Johannes Brahms struck up a friendship; the latter’s music would strongly influence the former in the years to come. In fact, Brahms sent Dvořák’s early compositions to his own publisher in the early days of their acquaintance. Dvořák’s popularity with critics and audiences alike grew, and in 1892, two years after the premiere of the Symphony in G Major, he accepted the directorate of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. After three years in the United States, homesickness and a desire to return to the European music scene convinced Dvořák to move back to his native Bohemia with frequent stays in Prague, Vienna, and London. His sixtieth birthday was celebrated, in accord with his favor and esteem, as a national holiday, with banquets and concerts in Prague. Dvořák died three years later of a stroke, leaving many unfinished compositions behind.
Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony is scored for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings, and runs for 35 minutes. The piece is one of his better-known works and has been loved by audiences since its premiere, but music scholars have often criticized the work for its lack of formal structure. Instead of staying with a traditional harmonic plan, Dvořák moves into less defined harmonic soundscapes, opting for a more varied modal sound as the backdrop to his melodic fragments. While this may make for a structurally confusing piece, Dvořák’s genius as a melody writer keeps his audiences satisfied with the return and embellishments of his charming melodies. As Brahms wrote soon after it was published: “Too much that’s fragmentary, incidental, loiters about in the piece. Everything fine, musically captivating and beautiful – but no main points! Especially in the first movement, the result is not proper. But a charming musician!”
The first movement, marked Allegro con brio, starts off with a slightly deceptive introduction in g minor, but the bird call that arrives in the flutes soon after quickly moves the movement into a much more optimistic tonal center. The lush introduction returns first in the strings to mark the beginning of the development, and then again in the clarinets to mark the beginning of the recapitulation. The first movement is characterized by a plethora of melodic material which swell to a frenzied climax and a grand finish; as composer Leoš Janáček said of this piece, “You’ve scarcely got to know one figure before a second one beckons with a friendly nod, so you’re in a state of constant but pleasurable excitement.”
The second movement, marked Adagio, is not as melancholy as one might expect; rather, its opening somber interplay between the dark richness of the strings and the light fluidity of the winds floats into a lilting melody handed off from flute and oboe to solo violin. The lushness of the beginning returns and gives way to a thrilling climax heralded by trumpet fanfares. Phillip Huscher of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra called this movement’s tension-riddled intensity contrasted with its delicate nuances a “masterful example of complexities and contradictions swept together in one great paragraph.”
The Allegretto grazioso that follows is neither a conventional minuet and trio nor a scherzo, but rather an elegant intermezzo. The movement starts with a languorous, rippling waltz in the violins and flutes; the “trio” section uses the reediness of the oboe and bassoon to suggest Dvořák’s roots in Bohemian folk music. After the return of the waltz, Dvořák concludes the movement with a short, surprising Coda, marked Molto vivace. This sweet ending is in fact a quicker, more accented version of the rustic dance used previously.
Dvořák announces the last movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo, with a proud trumpet fanfare. This movement is a theme-and-variations, with the central theme introduced gently by the cellos. The variations that follow include every possible adaptation, from burbling flutes to a solemn, persistent march to a bombastic brass section. The movement starts to sweetly fade away before Dvořák tosses in one last hurrah, a vibrant and spirited ending.