performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Rafael Kubelik
Yeah, a symphony that isn’t his ninth. And it’s superb, Dvorak at his finest.
Dvorak could be one of those composers who’s been cursed by his own success from a few very specific pieces, one of which we’ll be talking about later in the week (you know). The American quartet (and quintet), the ninth symphony, the piano concerto, violin concerto, a few of these works make up the majority of Dvorak’s playing time in the concert hall. As symphonies go, it’s almost always the ninth. But what people may not know is that there are actually eight symphonies before that one, and the last two of those other eight are especially wonderful works.
The work is scored for a pretty typically-sized Romantic era orchestra, and premiered on 22 April, 1885 in London. Interestingly, if you may remember from previous Dvorak symphony articles (that need to be rewritten), Dvorak’s own symphonic numbering is a bit confusing, like Schubert’s, in that this seventh symphony was originally published as no. 2, leaving what are currently numbered as the second through sixth symphonies unpublished, ignored, lost? It’s quite a jump to go from Dvorak’s first symphony to this, because the seventh is a spectacular work.
For context, this piece follows the premiere of the third symphony of Dvorak’s good friend Johannes Brahms, which piece actually inspired him to try his hand at another symphony. That same year, actually, the Philharmonic Society of London elected him as an honorary member and requested a new symphony from him, hence the London premiere. He wrote it rather quickly, and it was imbued with Czech nationalism, inspired by Dvorak’s desire to see his own country flourish and grow. But it’s not a collection of folk tunes or patriotic songs crammed into a symphonic form. As we shall see, it’s international, fundamentally musical, and can resonate with all listeners. There’s something quintessentially symphonic about it, and if you’re on the lookout for another great late-Romantic era European symphony, with roots in that tradition, look no further.
The piece is in four movements and runs to around 40 minutes. Simrock, Dvorak’s publisher, ironically gave the composer lots of trouble for a work that the composer felt deeply would represent his People, the Czech nation and culture, their struggle, and his own. It was this work, Simrock had decided, should have a German-only title page and be published with the composer’s Germanized name Anton rather than Antonín, and even that the dedication to the London Philharmonic society would have to be left out. Dvorak was lowballed for the work, and had to put up some fight with Simrock to get the payment he easily deserved for such a masterful composition. Shame on Simrock. But in any case, keep these things in mind as we listen to the work, themes of strength and cultural struggle. Wikipedia says that “the symphony would also reveal something of his personal struggle in reconciling his simple and peaceful countryman’s feelings with his intense patriotism and his wish to see the Czech nation flourish.”
The first movement gives us two captivating themes. In considering the three late, great symphonies of Dvorak, this could easily be considered his ‘tragic’ symphony if one were ever to be given that subtitle. The work opens darkly, with a brooding first theme, but what comes after it shows Dvorak’s apparently effortless lyricism, as the second theme of this work is in great contrast with the minor-key heaviness of the opening. It’s not bunnies and flowers and sunshine, but it’s tender and soft like the heartfelt, accepting part of tragedy, giving us the sense of struggle and strength so integral to the work. The use of these two ideas in a tight, compelling, absolutely musical way brings Brahms, Dvorak’s friend and one of the greatest symphonic (or otherwise) composers, to mind. If you haven’t heard anything from Dvorak but the ninth symphony, this movement should easily convince you that Dvorak was one of the greatest musical minds, one of the most talented symphonic craftsmen of the 19th century. And with those exquisite last few passages of fire and the ensuing quietude, we’re hypnotized, drawn into Dvorak’s story. Audience: captivated.
The second movement is subtitled, or marked, with the phrase, “From the sad years.” His mother had recently died, and prior to that his oldest child, but he admitted to his publisher that “What is in my mind is Love, God, and my Fatherland.” So there is literal ‘tragedy’ here, but it’s not Mahler’s shaking a fist at the heavens, or Tchaikovsky’s almost emo despair. Listen to the melodic line that opens, from the clarinet. Do you hear Schubert? I do. It’s nostalgic and sweet, but not free of sadness. Remember the ideas in the composer’s head about his fatherland. And yet, in another display of superb symphonic writing, this movement isn’t just a soft slow movement of strung-together melodies. There is growth, contrast, but that compelling idea that everything, contrasts and crunch and all, have issued forth from the same kernel of an idea, stirred forth by that opening clarinet gesture, that it’s all integrally related, not just music for music’s sake, but with a stirring urgency; it is its own, small journey, a working out of complex emotions within the larger scope of this symphony.
The scherzo is the first movement where I feel an overt sense of rustic, folk-type rhythm that some people might expect of Dvorak, especially in a Czech symphony, one that represents his homeland and pride. While it’s rustic and buoyant, there’s also a deep, soul-stirring longing and a sense of power to this movement, and the more I listen to this symphony, especially by the time I’ve reached the third movement, I am ever more convinced that this is one of the most pristinely, expertly composed symphonies in the repertoire. Kubelik and the Berliners are certainly a part of it, but the sense is that there’s forward motion, a long line of tension and propulsion throughout this entire performance, an unwavering drive to an already established conclusion.
And what a conclusion it is. I hear Brahms, Tchaikovsky, all these assimilated influences and cultures, Dvorak’s unique voice coming from his own personal background balanced with the influences and experiences he’s picked up along the way. Has he found himself or made himself? He himself said of the work that “there is not one superfluous note”, and the brilliance of the finale attests to that, compellingly finishing the final chapter in this dramatic, personal, but also universal, powerful work. Its moments of sudden brightness and D-major-ness can alternatively be seen as a sign of triumph, or a contrast that underlines the fundamental tragic thread that runs throughout the majority of this work, accentuating it the way a bit of salt or chili enriches the contrasting flavors of chocolate. So what are we to think?
No matter how you look at it, what we have here is a heady, bold, enormously handsome symphony, one of the most breathtaking things to come from the 19th century. If Dvorak’s ninth is ‘from the new world’, the his seventh is ‘from the old world’ or the homeland. Among famous seventh symphonies, there’s Beethoven and Bruckner, Sibelius, Shostakovich, but Dvorak’s seventh is a work of genius of at least equal merit to his almost too famous ninth. After coming to know this symphony, I have a far greater respect for Dvorak not just as a talented composer, but as a real genius, a skilled craftsman on the order of Brahms or Beethoven in his ability to construct a large-scale work such as this.
We saw from just two of his string quartets over the weekend that he seems to be very comfortable picking up the quartet baton from the likes of Beethoven and Mozart, in a clearly Romantic idiom, that it’s comfortable in his hands, but here’s strong evidence that he’s equally as adept in the symphonic realm, that he’s been able to assimilate and process these traditions and still produce something unique, of the highest merit.
Well, that’s it for now, but I suppose you know what’s coming Thursday! See you then.