1890: Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 in G major

SATURDAY, September 12, 2020 – 2:34 AM

Dvorak: Symphony No. 8


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

Manfred Honeck

1st movement

It starts with an introduction in minor, then the rest is in sonata form. It moves directly to G major. There are  bird calls, and there are some really nice parts for English horn for a theme in the recapitulation, two octaves lower than in the exposition. But it’s not all sunny, because there is more of G minor after the introduction. Major and minor are wonderfully balanced.

2nd movement

When you look at the marking, just “adagio”, it  looks pretty simple But this 2nd movement is almost 12 minutes long, longer than at least one famous Mozart Symphony by a couple minutes, and it tells a musical story.

3rd movement

This movement is an “intermezzo” much like the third movements of Symphony No. 1 and No. 2 by Brahms. The keys words hear are “gracious” and “smooth”. You can easily imagine people dancing to this. It’s by far the shortest movement, under six minutes long.

4th movement

The finale is in the form of theme and variations, and there is almost no break between the 3rd and final movements.. It starts with a brass fanfare, then the theme is slow and stately, almost formal. Some of the variations repeat. Then suddenly the music doubles in speed with a burst of energy. There is a great flute solo right in the middle of a repeated variation. Then something in C minor that sounds almost like some of Beethoven’s Turkish themes. There are some neat chromatic drops, a super trombone part, actually several, and it all winds up to a huge crescendo. It winds down to the first theme again, stately and proper, dropping to as quiet as possible, almost fading away at one point, like the beginning. It’s almost like all the players are walking away in a farewell. I have to wonder how much Dvorak had the final movement of Beethoven’s Eroica in his head while writing this. There is a lovely clarinet solo right at the end, then strings and oboe, a final dying away of everything, with flute and oboe and strings, then BAM! The brass erupts again with a final that explodes with speed and energy.

The rest of the story…

When Dvorak was born, and where…

He was born September 8, 1841 in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). This is very important to me because Tchaikovsky was born May 7 1840, and Grieg was born  June 15, 1843.

Dvorak was a very fine conductor…

He composed this symphony between August 26 and November 8, 1889, and conducted the first performance on February 2, 1890, in Prague.

He led the Exposition Orchestra (the Chicago Orchestra augmented to 114 players) in a performance of his Eighth Symphony on a special Bohemian Day concert at the World’s Columbian Exposition on August 12, 1893.

Another wrongly numbered symphony…

The G major symphony was known as Symphony No. 4 during the composer’s lifetime, although we now number it as the 8th of Dvorak’s nine symphonies. In fact, to the late nineteenth century, Dvorak was officially the composer of just five symphonies.

Five symphonies ignored for a long time…

The first four symphonies were not published until the 1950s , when we began to use the current numbering. There is more to this story, and I’ve talked about it elsewhere, but essentially Dvorak’s first five symphonies were passed over for a very long time. Dvorak thought that his 1st symphony had been destroyed, and for that reason he never even tried to revise it.

Another symphony that has been popular for over 125 years…

This again shows how so called “classical music” was actually popular music and remains popular. By the time he came to Chicago, Dvorak had already conducted this symphony several times, always to an enthusiastic response – first in Prague and then in London, Frankfurt, and Cambridge.

A popular composer…

In the 1880s and 1890s, Dvorak was as popular and successful as any living composer, including Brahms, who had helped promote his music early on and had even convinced his own publisher, Simrock, to take on Dvorak  as a new composer. Dvorak struggled for recognition for many years, but towards the end of his life he was incredibly well-known. Some of his works were known all over the world, and this 8th symphony is one of those works.

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