TUESDAY, January 5, 2021 – 3:33 AM
You might consider this the last of Dvorak’s “almost lost to the world” symphonies, since the first five were not even numbered until long after his death. I find it impossible to believe that this wonderful symphony was not immediately a huge success. You might want to start with either of the middle movements. The 2nd is slow and in minor. The 3rd is light, in major, and has the feel and sound of his Slavonic Dances. Perhaps try this first:
- 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons
- 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones
- timpani, triangle
Heiko Mathias Förster
There is a march at around 00:51 that sounds very Wagnerian, although at the moment I can’t identify which opera overture or prelude I keep hearing. Perhaps it’s “Der Meistersinger”. He’s obvious channeling Wagner. He’s also channeling Beethoven with his introduction, but he repeats that introduction when he repeats his exposition. I hear less of Brahms then later. I would call the writing here fully mature. There are a lot of fanfares for flute, trumpet and even horn. It gradually fades away at the end before a gentle ending.
There is a nice change of key. The obvious place to go to is either to F minor or D minor, but he morphs to A minor. This movement is only about eight minutes long, and it’s ending is almost unnoticeable because after only the briefest movement it continues with a short intro to the next movement. It gives a really nice contrast to the rather other three movements, which are quite sunny, all in major.
The whole symphony is around 40 minutes long, so the start of the 3rd movement is very nearly the midpoint re time. This scherzo is the shortest movement and has a lot of the feel of his Slavonic Dances, but this comes a few years before those dances. That shows that national dances were always part of his musical mentality. This movement starts with an intro. I have not checked a score to see how it’s marked. It is also relatively short compared to the outer movement.
The last movement is a bit longer, but not overly so. The whole symphony is very well balanced in both length and mode. It’s astonishing to find out that for some time this symphony was not even listed as one of the numbered symphonies. This movement starts out with an introduction and has a very strong minor feel. It takes some time to gradually wander back to F major. I hear less Brahms in this symphony, and more Beethoven, but it is full of the sounds that only Dvorak wrote.
First performed several years later…
The symphony was first performed on March 25, 1879 at the Slav concert of the Academic Readers’ Association in the Prague Žofín concert hall, conducted by Adolf Čech.
Then it was not published until much later…
The composition was revised in the autumn of 1887 then published by Simrock in 1888. This also means that we are not hearing what Dvorak originally wrote, which is common. Composers go back over their earlier works as they mature. So what we hear today is a mixture of young Dvorak’s ideas mixed with later changes.
Dvorak’s fifth symphony, written within six weeks…
That’s not the speed of Mozart, but it’s impressive.
Perhaps his first fully mature symphony…
That seems to be a consensus. I’m still new enough to these earlier symphonies to be taking it all in.
Increasing master of structure…
I know from his late symphonies that Dvorak became a master of very tight structure combined with amazingly free-flowing ideas. He seemed to have tended towards long, sprawling ideas when he was young, something I would say he shared with Tchaikovsky. By his last symphony he had adopted a very traditional symphonic structure that worked perfectly with his expressive, intuitive style. You can hear that come together in this symphony. In general each symphony is a step forward in the maturation process, so that by the time we get to Symphony No. 6 we get to the symphonies that were originally those that were numbered.
Merging the past and the future…
He was always forwarding thinking in his expressiveness, and there was an increasingly nationalistic trend in many countries that allowed composers to inject folk music and dances native to their countries into their music. By taking the more Classical structure of earlier composers he united two worlds, and it’s that melding that makes his music so satisfying to listen to.
Similarities between this and Symphony No. 7…
The 7th symphony is exuberant and optimistic sounding, and I’d say for the most part this is true also of this symphony. It has dark moments too, but the optimism wins out.
The symphony was a big success…
I have read no negative reactions from critics, and the kind of reaction below was not unusual. In October 1887 Dvorak dedicated his symphony to celebrated German conductor Hans von Bulow, who had already been a great promoter of the composer’s works abroad during the 1870s. He responded to the dedication in a letter from1887:
“Esteemed Maestro! The dedication from you – alongside Brahms the most blessed composer of our times – is a higher honor for me than any grand cross from any prince. With the most heartfelt thanks I accept this honor. Your sincerely devoted admirer, Hans von Bulow.”
It’s so wonderful to read of such support from top composers and conductors!