Antonin Dvorak: Symphony no. 2, op. 4

This article has been marked as in need of a revisit. That’s where I feel like I didn’t do the piece justice or have more to say (usually because I didn’t know it nearly well enough or didn’t have the right perspective). I’ll keep the original article for posterity, but publish a new version that will eventually be linked here for my new take on it.

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Raphael Kubelik

It’s taking me more time to get through what I believe is enough listens to write these days. Started listening to this one last week, and here we are on Mozart Monday, and I’m finishing this one first.

I have listened through Dvorak’s symphonies a few times in passing. I will get to them eventually, but 7-9 are excellent (9 obviously very well-known even among non-classical folk).

I listened to number one, and it was good enough. Nothing special there, to be honest, but it has an interesting story. Tangent:

It seems strange now to think of Dvorak as the struggling Schubertian type composer who had not reached fame and fortune in his lifetime. Only five of his nine symphonies were considered “known” in his lifetime, and the first to be published was his #6. Four other manuscripts (not including this one, #2) were lost and only found much later. #1 was found some twenty years after Dvorak’s death, coincidentally by an unrelated man also named Dvorak (one 22-year-old Dr. Rudolph Dvorak), in a second-hand bookstore in 1882, almost twenty years after it was written. It wasn’t found until 1923, because Dr. Dvorak kept it among his personal possessions until his death. It was passed to his son, who finally brought it to the attention of the rest of the world in 1923, but not performed until 1936, and not even published until 1961, almost 100 years after it was completed (1865, the same year as #2). This makes it the last of the symphonies of Dvorak the composer to be published or performed, even though it was his very first symphony. I digress.

The second symphony was not free from issues either. It was also finished in 1865, but not premiered until 1888 (by one Adolf Čech, who also premiered symphonies 5 and 6). Wikipedia says it was well received, but doesn’t have much more information about it. The delay in premiere of this one seems to be due to the fact that after he finished writing it, he sent the score to be bound, but couldn’t pay the binder, so he just kept the score. This seems unfortunate, but why would he send it off to be published if he couldn’t pay for it? There must be more to that story. In any case, it is one of the only times Dvorak heard a symphony of his own in his lifetime, and this one, only once, at the premiere.

It is beautiful, if not a bit drawn out. My first exposure to Dvorak many years ago (as maybe with most people) was his ninth symphony, and then his cello concerto. These two were only a few opus numbers apart, as I recall, and there are noticeable similarities between them. I think of the ninth symphony as very much a 20th century work, especially in its apparent expression of “American” themes (although that is debatable. This post is devoted to the second, not the ninth, but there is a fantastic analysis of the ninth by Bernstein where he tries to pinpoint the hows and whys of what make this “from the new world.”) That is to say, I feel the ninth symphony to be a very 20th century piece, so it is strange to think that the composer was born while Chopin and Liszt were still alive, very much in the Romantic era. I somehow didn’t think of his works as being from that long ago, but this one does ooze with romanticism. It clocks in at around 50 minutes, and although there are sections of it that are breathtaking (the very opening is just marvelous), the middle bits between these climaxes of beauty or drama or intensity, while pretty, are not strikingly memorable (to me, after two or three listens). The second movement is a good example of this. It has some high points, a few that will blow your ears out if your headphones are turned up high enough to hear the quieter bits. Aside from those, the rest kind of just goes on by. Not in a bad way, but it did not surprise or shock or make an amazing impression. I will come to like this with some more listens, but Wikipedia says that numbers 1 and 2 ” [are] despite touches of originality, too wayward to maintain a place in the standard symphonic repertory.” I may not describe them as wayward, but they may not be showstopping crowd pleasers.

I look forward to listening to your later works, Mr. Dvorak.

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