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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Symphonies of Antonín Dvořák

It seems that the words "Dvořák" and "symphony" really go together. The Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (who lived from 1841 to 1904) wrote one of the most popular and best-loved of all symphonies (the "New World" symphony), a standard of the concert repertoire the world over.

But as usual, such things make me think outside the square and I’d like to give some attention to all of Dvořák's symphonies. The last three symphonies of the nine he wrote are often performed today, but about the other six? Let's go on a brisk guided tour of the whole cycle, but before we do, we need to address the question of the numbering of Dvořák's symphonies.

Dvořák wrote his nine symphonies over nearly three decades, between 1865 and 1893. The first of these to be published, though, was the sixth and for that reason the sixth was published as number 1. The seventh was published next and called number 2. Then, most confusingly, the fifth was published and called number 3. The eighth and ninth (the “New World”) followed, and were called numbers 4 and 5 respectively. Only these five were published during Dvořák's lifetime and the musical world at large was unaware of the existence of the earlier four, even though Dvořák had revised and performed some of them without them being published.

The opus numbers attached to many of Dvořák's works are also completely misleading. As his works (and not only the symphonies) were published in an order different to that of their composition, the opus numbers don't really help in establishing a chronology. Added to this is the fact that some works were given falsely high opus numbers by some publishers to create the impression that the composer was more experienced than he actually was. On top of all this, some works were given different opus numbers by different publishers, and some opus numbers were used for more than one work. The opus numbers are, in short, a bit of a mess.

When the new, authoritative edition of Dvořák's works appeared in the mid 20th century, this made use of a new chronological catalogue by Jarmil Burghauser. Like the Köchel catalogue of Mozart's works, the Burghauser catalogue arranges Dvořák's works chronologically. These are the "B" numbers which are increasingly used nowadays in reference to Dvořák's music.

The eventual publication of all of Dvořák's symphonies, and their correct chronological arrangement in the Burghauser catalogue, has meant that over the last fifty years or so, Dvořák's symphonies have come to be known by their correct number. The "New World", originally published as number 5, is now generally known correctly as number 9. Here I’ll use the chronological numbering, which is now universally accepted.

All the YouTube performances of the symphonies I’ve linked to here run concurrently with the score of each.

Antonín Dvořák (1868)

Dvořák's first symphony was composed in early 1865 when he was 23. It was his first orchestral work and it was sent to Germany as an entry in a competition. It didn't win and Dvořák never saw the score again, believing it destroyed or lost. The Czech oriental scholar, Rudolf Dvořák (no relation to the composer) discovered it in a second had shop in Leipzig in 1882. He bought it and kept silent about it, not telling anyone - even the composer - that he had it.

No-one knew of the score's existence until after Rudolf Dvořák's death in 1920 (long after the composer's death). It was passed onto Rudolf's son, who alerted the musical world to its existence. Even then, it wasn't published until 1961.

The first symphony has acquired the nickname The Bells of Zlonice. This does not appear on the score but it seems the composer did refer to it by this name, although its exact rationale is unclear. What is clear is that Dvořák was clearly influenced by Beethoven's fifth symphony in this early work. The four movements are all in the same keys as the corresponding movements of Beethoven's fifth, and the heroic ending of the piece clearly evokes the triumph at the end of Beethoven's famous work. [listen]

The first symphony was the only one of his symphonies which Dvořák never heard performed or had the chance to revise. The work as we know it is the work he sent to the competition in his 20s. The second symphony, although it was written in the same year as the first - 1865 - is only known today in the revised version Dvořák made more than 20 years later. How closely this resembles the work as originally conceived is not known as the original version is lost. (Or maybe it’s awaiting discovery in a second hand shop somewhere. Or maybe someone has found it and isn’t telling us...).

Unlike the first symphony, which aims to make the grand statement, the second symphony is an altogether lighter affair. It was written under the influence of Dvořák's love for one of his piano students, Josefina Čermáková. She didn't return Dvořák's affection, though, and some years later he married her sister, Anna. (Haydn and Mozart also married the sisters of the women they originally fell in love with. There’s a thesis waiting to be written on that, perhaps…)

The 1887 revision of the second symphony was prepared for a performance in Prague in 1888 (the work's premiere), but it wasn’t published until 1959. There are occasionally echoes of Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony in Dvořák's second, but it's also clear that even in this early piece Dvořák is developing more courage to frame his ideas in more Czech-sounding idioms. [listen]

It was to be another eight years before Dvořák wrote another symphony. In the intervening years he had come under spell of Richard Wagner and there is much in the third symphony - written in early and mid 1873 - which reflects Wagner's influence. The third symphony in E flat also achieved for its composer - now 31 - his first real recognition outside his Czech homeland. It was submitted to the jury of the Austrian State Stipendium, and he was awarded this grant, which was designed to assist "young, poor and talented artists". It also provided him with a real sense of achievement as the jury included no less a luminary than Johannes Brahms.

The third symphony is in three movements - the only one of Dvořák's nine which is not in the usual four movement structure - and it's interesting that even though the Viennese jury would have been most definitely anti-Wagner, the Wagnerian touches in the score didn't seem to cause any difficulties in the work's real qualities being perceived. [listen]

The third symphony was performed in Prague very soon after its composition, and Dvořák still thought highly enough of it to revise it in the late 1880s, as he had with the second symphony. Still, the third symphony wasn’t published until 1911, a decade after Dvořák's death.

The fourth symphony in D minor - written a year after the third - shows two rather disparate influences. If anything, the influence of Wagner is stronger, but almost paradoxically the "true" Czech voice of Dvořák is more in evidence here than in any of the previous symphonies. The slow movement, for example, immediately reminds us of the Wagner of Tannhäuser, But in the very next movement we hear Dvořák embracing his national roots to write exciting music which hints at things to come. [listen]

The fourth symphony revised in the 1880s at around the same time as Dvořák undertook the revisions of the second and third symphonies, but it had to wait until 1912 to see publication. It did show, however, that Dvořák was developing his own voice, a voice which was ever more evident in the symphonies which followed. The fact that the first four symphonies weren't published during Dvořák's lifetime hampered the musical public's understanding of the composer's development. But the remaining symphonies all appeared in print while Dvořák was alive (although, as mentioned earlier, not in their order of composition) and these helped cement his reputation in Europe and elsewhere. Today it's far more likely that orchestras will play the last five symphonies rather than the first four, but of the last five, even the fifth and sixth are not widely known.

The fifth symphony, in F major, was written in mid 1875. Simrock - Brahms's publisher - issued it in 1888 in a four-hand piano arrangement. The influence and support of Brahms is important to remember in considering Dvořák's development as a composer, but it's also important to remember that even by the time Dvořák had written the fifth symphony, Brahms's own first symphony had not been performed. Dvořák's models were earlier symphonic masters - Beethoven and Mendelssohn in particular - and Wagner (a contemporary composer to Dvořák, although not a symphonist) of course had his influence as well. But by the time of the fifth symphony Dvořák was pretty well over his Wagner phase and was writing more in a style which synthesised the early Romantics with his own Czech heritage.

The fifth symphony is a subtle masterpiece, regarded by many as the equal of the last three symphonies. The tone of the symphony overall is pastoral and serene (F major has this effect on many composers) but the intricate and brilliant way in which Dvořák uses his raw material is masterful. This is especially so in the ravishing slow movement. [listen]

Antonín Dvořák (1882)

Dvořák's sixth symphony - in D major - was the first to be published and the first work to provide him with real international fame. It was written in 1880 at the request of the famous conductor Hans Richter, and Dvořák turned 39 while he was at work on it. Richter loved the piece but the planned Vienna premiere was eventually abandoned because the members of the Vienna Philharmonic didn't like the idea of playing music by an unknown Czech in two consecutive seasons (they had played Dvořák's Third Slavonic Rhapsody under Richter the year before). It was eventually premiered in Prague in March 1881, and it was a massive success. The scherzo, in the form of the Czech dance known as the Furiant, was encored on that occasion. Clearly the Prague audience connected with music by one of their own. [listen]

In coming to the last three Dvořák symphonies, we come to the three which are most regularly played today, although I hope by now it's clear that in my opinion we should add at least the fifth and sixth symphonies to this list. The seventh, eighth and ninth symphonies each have their fans who regard them as "the best" of Dvořák's nine, and depending on how you look at them, each of the last three would have a reasonable claim to such a title.

The seventh symphony, in D minor, was completed in March 1885, about four and a half years after the sixth. It was premiered in London a month after it was finished, revised two months later and almost immediately after that appeared in print. It's generally regarded that the seventh marks a huge step forward in Dvořák's development as a composer. The inventiveness in the way he develops his themes, and the overall dramatic power of the work make it stand apart as something new and exciting in his output. Many see the energy and power of the seventh as being even greater than that of the later "New World" symphony, but of course such responses are quite subjective and difficult to quantify.

Antonín Dvořák with his wife Anna in London (1886)

The seventh was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society, hence the British premiere. Dvořák conducted the performance himself and his aim to produce a serious work to make the world take notice was more than achieved. But as one would expect from Dvořák, the seventh contains plenty of beautiful melody alongside its dramatic sweep and thrust. [listen]

The eighth symphony takes a rather different course, and for many Dvořák fans it is their favourite of the nine symphonies. The eighth, written in late 1889, is altogether more relaxed, less formal in its structure and more - for want of a better word - "pastoral" in it effects. The work was written while Dvořák was in the country, and right from the start there is a feeling of space and tranquillity about the work. The flute even suggests birdsong.

In the preceding symphony - the seventh - Dvořák finally felt (with justification) that his symphonies could stand alongside those of Brahms, and here in the eighth there are elements which suggest the influence of the German composer. The third movement of the eighth is not a wild, energetic scherzo, but rather a wistful waltz-like movement which is reminiscent of the corresponding movement of Brahms's third symphony. [listen]

Three years after composing the eighth symphony, Dvořák was in America as Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York. He held this position for three years and it was during this time (in 1893) that he composed his final symphony, the ninth, to which he gave the title From the New World. Dvořák was keen to demonstrate to American composers that they could look to their national heritage for inspiration, as he had throughout his career. (Check out my series on American music in this blog - starting here - to see the extent to which American composers did or didn’t follow his advice.) Dvořák wrote western European art music but he was not afraid to include elements which were specifically and undeniably Czech. In the United States he encouraged composers to seek ideas in the music of Native Americans and in the spirituals of black Americans.

The National Conservatory of Music of America, New York

The "New World" symphony contains many glorious melodies, but none is an actual quote of native American music or of spirituals. Dvořák wrote original tunes which suggested (some might unkindly say "parodied") these musical sources, and he then ingeniously wove these into a classical symphonic form. The most famous suggestion of a spiritual comes in the slow movement, but you will still read in some places that the composer is quoting a pre-existing tune. This is not true. After the “New World” was premiered a faux-spiritual (“Goin’ home”) was composed to fit the melody from the slow movement. In the third movement, Dvořák attempted to invoke Native American music. The way in which he blends this into what is clearly a Czech furiant is quite remarkable.

Dvořák conducted the premiere of the ninth symphony in New York in December 1893 and it has never been out the repertoire since. One of its most extraordinary features is the way in which themes reappear and are combined with other themes. The finale blends themes from the preceding movements with its own themes in a way which is truly ingenious and, especially in live performance, thrilling. [listen]

Dvořák returned to Europe in April 1895. After a few months rest he again started a busy round of composing and conducting engagements, but he wrote no more symphonies. In his final years his compositional energies were more focused on opera, symphonic poems and chamber music. He died in 1904 at the age of 63.

Dvořák's funeral procession (1904)

The Dvořák symphonies, like the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and many other composers of the first rank, comprise a body of work which is among the treasures of western music. His symphonies are - as with those of Beethoven and many others - the spine which runs through his creative life. It's my hope that the earlier symphonies will become better known, but at the very least I hope this post has given you a deeper appreciation of one of the greats.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2010.

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Graham Parker
Graham Parker
Aug 21, 2023

My goodness what a brilliant article to have stumbled across! Supremely informative, well-informed and beautifully balanced in its analysis. Thank you for this gem. Graham P

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