1865: Dvorak: Symphony No. 1 (BELLS OF ZLONICE) in C minor

FRIDAY, December 18, 2020 – 10:26 AM

This is  sort of like a mishmash of young ideas by a composer who did not yet know how to put it all together. However, the music was lost during Dvorak’s lifetime, so he never got to revise it. It’s interesting to listen to in order to get a complete idea of how Dvorak developed as a composer, but bear in mind he was very young when this was written.

First of all, I would listen to all the other symphonies first, and perhaps starting with the last and moving backwards is best. But for this one, try starting with the shortest movement. The others are awfully long. The 3rd movement is around nine minutes long.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor (BELLS OF ZLONICE), age 24


  • 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones
  • timpani
  • strings

Istvan Kertesz

1st movement

The first thing to notice is that 19 minutes is a very long first movement. If each movement had been equally long this symphony would have been around 80 minutes long, the length of a Mahler symphony. Almost without doubt Dvorak would have revised this later, but he never got a chance. He thought the whole symphony was destroyed. This is the longest movement of all his symphonic works because of very long exposition section that is marked to be repeated. There are some fine moments, but it wanders a lot and lacks a tight structure.

2nd movement

Already this is an interesting key change. C minor usually moves to Eb major, but this kind of move to Ab is an idea Beethoven started to do a lot. It’s a morph. G moves to Ab, one little 1/2 step move. By the end of this movement you have heard almost 33 minutes of music, so the first two movements rather overbalance the whole symphony.

3rd movement

This is shortest and most organized movement.

4th movement

As is true for the rest of the symphony, this is not tight and wanders a good bit.

The Bells of Zlonice…

The title The Bells of Zlonice does not appear in the score, although Dvorak is reputed to have referred to it this way in later years. However, several passages sound much like bells.

Originally a three-movement work…

The 3rd movement was added later. A very long exposition is repeated, and that makes the movement very long. The whole symphony is around 54 minutes long, very much like  his2nd symphony, which is almost exactly the same length. When you are listening to music by young composers you have to keep in mind that they are starting out.

His weakest symphony, but still good…

For countless reasons Dvorak was a late bloomer, and if you study his life you find out why. The full maturation of his genius was delayed, but when it finally happened the results were stupendous. Here you can tell that he was destined to be something very special, and there are for definitely moments of genius in this.

The first recording of all his symphonies…

The first recording complete and uncut was made in 1966 by the London Symphony Orchestra under István Kertész as part of his complete Dvorad cycle for Decca/London, and that is what I am linking to.

He never heard this…

It was the only one of his symphonies that Dvorak never heard performed or had a chance to revise.


Dvorak submitted the score for a competition in Germany but never saw it again and always believed it was destroyed or irretrievably lost. He later included the work in a list of early compositions he claimed to have destroyed. He never had a chance to revise the symphony, and so today we hear something he wrote very early that is unchanged. In other words, you get to experience it raw, warts and all.

It did not resurface until 1923…

The work was lost shortly after its composition, and did not come to light until 1923, almost 20 years after the composer’s death.

1882, another Dvorak…

In 1882, an unrelated person named Dr. Rudolf Dvorak, a 22-year-old scholar, came across the score in a second-hand bookshop in Leipzig and bought it. This has to be one of the weirdest coincidences I’ve every herad about.

Only a few official symphonies…

At that time the composer Dvorak was not widely known. Of his first six symphonies only one of them – No. 6 – had been published, and only three of them – Nos. 3, 5 and 6 –  had been performed. At that time the world numbered his symphonies without those earlier ones, and which symphony had which number is very confusing.

He passed it on to his son…

Rudolf Dvorak kept the score in his possession, telling nobody about it, not even the composer. He died 38 years later, in 1920, when it passed to his son.

1923, brought to the world…

The son brought it to the attention of the musical world in 1923.

1836, first performance

Its authenticity was proven beyond doubt, but it did not receive its first performance until 4 October 1936 in Brno, and even then in a somewhat edited form. The orchestra was conducted by Milan Sachs, who was a Czech.

Awkward? Maybe this critic was right…

Following the work’s premiere, Hans Holländer wrote a review of the work. He noted that, although the writing was at times awkward, the orchestration was not. He noted that it seemed to be similar in style to Ludwig van Beethoven and Bedřich Smetana. I’m not sure what that last sentence means. I defy anyone to hear Beethoven in this symphony.

1961, finally published…

The symphony was not published until 1961, and was the last of Dvorak’s symphonies to be either performed or published. How weird is that? It means that it took 96 years to get published, and we have to ask ourselves why that happened.

2 thoughts on “1865: Dvorak: Symphony No. 1 (BELLS OF ZLONICE) in C minor

  1. While this is some beautiful music, my comment isn’t too related to this. Do you think you’ll ever go in depth about movie scores outside of starwars, like the disney renaissance movies.

  2. It is sobering to read in general how often a composer’s works are not heard in his lifetime, or years after he wrote them. The “in the raw” character also gives us insights into the creative process. We tend to think that music just pours out of composers like water from a tap.

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