1885: Dvorak: Symphony No. 7 in D minor

SATURDAY, December 19, 2020 – 5:04 AM

Dvorak Symphony No. 7 in D minor, age 43

It was completed on March 17, 1885 and first performed on April 22, 1885 at St James’s Hall in London.

  • Instrumentation:
  • 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 clarinets, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons
  • 2 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones (but no tuba)
  • timpani
  • strings.

Istvan Kertesz/LSO

He is a man who went through tremendous tragedy, and his life was cut short because he drowned. Fate is so strange. He should have been making records for several more decades, and he is without doubt one of the best conductors I’ve ever heard. If you want to know more, it’s worth reading his bio.

1st movement

This is serious stuff. It starts massively in D minor, then 2nd theme moves to Bb major, a morph. It’s amazing how many times the Romantic composers moved that way. He ends the expo in Bb, then somehow gets to B minor in a series of nice moves to unleash the development section. I call the development section “playtime”, because this is where composers unleash their creativity. Maybe later I’ll do time stamp. He finally gets back to D minor, then moves to D major this time for the 2nd theme. Nice. He sort of has to use this as his home base now, because he has to finish in D something. But first he moves to F major in a few brilliant moves before getting back to D minor. The movement, rather than ending big, dies down to a very quiet ending.

2nd movement

This time he moves to relative F major, which is actually quite traditional, but he doesn’t want to go to Bb major because he did that in the last movement. So this is very peaceful but melancholy, typical for Dvorak – and very diatonic. It makes a huge contrast with the 1st, stormy movement. However, there is still a huge middle section in F minor, and there are some stunning modulations. Dvorak, like Tchaikovsky is never static harmonically for long. Even when there is mostly peace, something turbulent is right below the surface. And right in the middle there is almost an exact Wagner quote, so his connection to Wagner never stopped.

3rd movement

This is the shortest movement, but not by much. This symphony is nicely balanced, with each movement being around 10 minutes long or less. There is no surprise that he is moving back to D minor. But the move to G major is Dorian, and that comes from his folk-song roots. Much of this is a direct connection to Beethoven, who pioneered the scherzo in his symphonies, but this also sounds like one of his Slavonic Dances, and the whole thing is intense. There is a lighter trio in D major with lots of bird calls in the flutes and all sorts of nice wind work, then back to the main theme to finish in D minor.

4th movement

There is no relief. The last movement ended intensely in D minor, and this one starts the same way. The whole movement has a strong minor feeling over all, and when he ends on a D major chord this is “ending on a Picardy third”, in D major.

One of the really famous symphonies…

Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, but the really famous ones are the last three – seven, eight and nine. The ninth is more commonly known as the “The New World Symphony”.

Dvorak was mentored by Brahms…

Briefly, Dvorak was continually supported by Brahms, who always admired this Czech composer, and in fact it was and remains not at all uncommon for geniuses to recognize other geniuses and promote their works. I love reading about how Brahms helped Dvorak throughout his career.  Without Brahms it is quite likely the world may never have discovered Dvorak in the same way.

It was originally published as Symphony No. 2…

For a very long time the the first six symphonies were almost totally ignored. In fact, the first symphony was lost, and Dvorak thought it had been destroyed. For that reason it was never revised. The 2nd symphony was almost totally ignored, so it was not until the 3rd and 4th symphonies that he got some attention. Then came the 5th, still not well known. Finally the 6th symphony established his reputation more firmly, and at the time it was knows as Symphony No. 1.

Inspired by Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9

Dvorak had heard and admired Johannes Brahms’ new Symphony No. 3, and this prompted him to think of writing of a new symphony himself. For certain you can hear Brahms in the music of Dvorak, but as a composer he was a bit of a shapeshifter. Dvorak apparently was a quiet, polite man, a gentleman, and he had great admiration for other composers. Everyone knew the symphonies of Beethoven, and you will also hear him channeling his 9th symphony. Then never forget that he was a huge fan of Wagner. What was amazing about Dvorak is that he took the ideas of others, their strengths, without losing his own voice.

Payment was a nightmare…

His German publisher, Fritz Simrock, offered only 3,000 marks for the symphony, which was peanuts for a major symphony. After further argument, Simrock grudgingly paid 6,000 marks. Simrock remained a thorn in his his side for many more years, although he was also helpful in promoting his career, and of course Simrock was Brahms’ publisher. Simrock became Dvorak’s publisher because of Brahms, who was a lifelong ally of Dvorak as well as a mentor.

The great trio of big symphonies…

Dvorak’s last three symphonies remain by far the most famous and popular, and there is a strange coincidence here. Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies, but has last three are also by far the most popular. In addition, the other symphonies by both are well worth exploring.

3 thoughts on “1885: Dvorak: Symphony No. 7 in D minor

  1. I was going to say that the 1st movement blew me away, until the 2nd one did the same thing. I found a handy way of listening. Open a new link so that your guiding comments are still visible. And be near the piano so that when you say something moves to Bb, I can play that Bb to know what to listen for.
    “Maybe later I’ll do time stamp” – the time stamps are somewhat missed. 😉 Though it may make us less lazy in trying to hear where the development starts, and such.

  2. The first movement of this is my favorite kind of orchestral music. Its that strong trumpet/string sound with little moments of happy sounds and a lot of big booms in volume that I really love about music like this.

  3. To clarify: this was from months ago, and the 1st recording was by Szell. None of us picked that recording, so I removed it. Now there is another recording by Blomstedt, which is new and completely different.

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