1880: Dvorak: Symphony No. 6 in D major

SUNDAY, December 20, 2020 – 6:14 AM

The world knew of this as Symphony No. 1 until we finally found out that there are five more. The story of how those other symphonies almost got lost is almost a horror story, but fortunately all of them were saved, and now we get to hear all of them. You might want to start with this movement, which has a lot of the sound of his Slavonic Dances:

Dvorak: Symphony No. 6 in D major, age 39

Instrumentation:

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

Sian Edwards

1st movement

The main theme is one of Dvorak’s most instantly recognizable themes. It’s sunny, cheerful and a real ear worm. There is a great deal of Brahms in this, and much of it reminds me of Brahms 2nd Symphony. Listen HERE to for a spot that sounds so much like Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” that caught my ear the first time I heard it.  Elgar was born 16 years later, so I’d wager he knew this symphony when he wrote what is HERE.

2nd movement

He moves to Bb major, a double morph. Also the theme starts with a 4th, just as the theme in the first movement starts. Note that different composers place the scherzo movement in a different place, some preferring to place it as the 2nd movement. But Beethoven placed it 3rd, and that’s what Dvorak does next. There is a strong feeling of Brahms here.

3rd movement

A furiant is a rapid and fiery Bohemian dance in alternating 2/4 and 3/4 time, and this movement is very like some of his Slavonic Dances – the first set of eight were written about two years earlier. This is Dvorak’s version of Beethoven’s scherzo idea, and where Beethoven placed. It’s silly, but I keep hearing “Three Blind Mice” in section. That and the unusual chords let me know immediately that this is Symphony No. 6, movement three.

4th movement

This starts out softly and peacefully and reminds me very much of Brahms Symphony No. 2 which appeared about three years earlier. It’s the way the last movement starts, sneaking into high energy.

It was once Symphony No. 1…

It’s confusing, and it took me a week to fully understand what happened. The first five symphonies  are so overlooked that they were not even counted, and the 1st was almost lost. So for most of the world there were only four symphonies, those that we today know as the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies.

The last four may be the best, but…

There is always a “but”, and the big “but” here is that there is something delightful about listening to earlier works to hear the development of a genius, so you definitely want to check the other five symphonies. There is great music there.

The success of his Slavonic Dances…

Something happened when Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances went viral. (They are HERE on this site.) Perhaps that gave him confidence in his ability to channel the music of Bohemia. Perhaps it helped him integrate his Wagner and Brahms influences together with his native roots to create something the world had never heard, but with this sixth symphony you hear the fully mature Dvorak voice.

The link to Brahms…

There is a link between this symphony and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and this one. Of interest to me also is how two composers will compose something very similar when they never met and could never have heard the music of the other. I hear something of Elgar’s Enigma Variations here in the first movement, just for a moment. But this is only possible if Elgar heard this symphony, because he wrote his variations in 1999.

Written in only about seven weeks…

Dvorak created quickly once he got started, and this is not the first symphony he wrote so quickly.

Dvorak was by this time hugely successful, and this symphony helped cement that success…

The last three symphonies are more famous, and the “New World Symphony” dwarfs all others in popularity, and in fact that symphony is far more well known than all his others. But some think that this one is on the same high level of the last three, and that is my view.

A fine reception…

The work was premiered in Prague on March 25, 1881 under conductor Adolf Cech. It was extremely well received and the orchestra ended up having to repeat the third movement. Hans Richter conducted the symphony the following season at one of the Philharmonic Society concerts in London. While he was still rehearsing the work, he wrote to Dvorak:

“This morning we had our first rehearsal for your wonderful work. I am proud to have received this dedication. The orchestra is truly delighted. The performance is on Monday 15th at eight in the evening. I am certain it will be a great success. But it has also been rehearsed with love nonetheless…”

2 thoughts on “1880: Dvorak: Symphony No. 6 in D major

  1. Quite nice. I was especially interested, and appreciated the links you gave, in the part about the possible influence on Elgar’s Enigma. Fantastic to be able to listen back and forth.

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