1874: Dvorak: Symphony No. 4 in D minor (“Little D Minor), age 33

Mr. Peabody Says:

This is the 4th of five symphonies that were all but totally ignored during Dvorak’s lifetime. The world just did not understand what a genius he was, but Brahms did, and thanks to his support he went on to write the 5th through the 9th. Even today it is very difficult to find really find performances of this symphony.

Complete Dvorak symphony recordings:

The István Kertész recording remains a miracle. He was the first man to record all of them. But I found a second recording by Witold Rowick that I really like.

Perhaps start with the 3rd movement

It is around six minutes long, but I think the whole symphony is an unappreciated gem.

Istvan Kertesz


  • piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba
  • timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals
  • harp
  • strings

Istvan Kertesz

Witold Rowick

1st movement

This is around 13 minutes long and rather complicated. There is a short intro, but it’s not slower so it falls into the style of the rest of the movement. This becomes part of an expo that is several minutes long, with the usual two thematic sections before it repeats, complete with the intro. A very long and complicated development section follows before a recap but without the intro. I certainly see why Brahms was impressed. At some point I’m going to break this whole thing down, because I find very little written about the form.

2nd movement

If I did not like anything else about Dvorak, I’d love the way he moves harmonically. D minor would normally move to D major or F major, the parallel and relative minors. But instead he morphs to Bb major, which would be my own choice about how to move. It’s very logical, very rich sounding and very varied. There is a lot of Wagner in this, and the way he channeled Wagner absolutely fascinates me. If you know to listen for it, it’s there, but it’s always in the young Dvorak style, so also fully his. What a shape shifter he was!

3rd movement

Obviously this is saying that something is “ferocious”, so before you start listening you know it’s going to be intense, and it is. There is a really nice middle section that is in major with lots of flourishes and contrasts, contrasts nicely. I think the form is basically A B A B A. The 2nd movement’s main theme is sometimes said to be inspired by Wagner’s Tannhäuser, though I’m not sure how true that is.

4th movement

This has huge energy and is a great finish for a great symphony.

Another Smetana premiere…

The 2nd most famous composer in Bohemia was Bedrich Smetana, and he seems to have been squarely in Dvorak’s corner.

The 4th symphony was completed in March 1874 and, by 25 May. Its third movement was already included in a concert conducted by Bedrich Smetana. According to a critic writing for the magazine Dalibor, the music:

“… enjoyed a very enthusiastic reception. […] If we were permitted to judge the entire symphony based upon this part alone, we would not wish for anything else, but that the work be performed in its entirety, as soon as possible.”

Based on that review I would guess that when the world heard the complete symphony it would have gone viral. But it was not to be.

It took another 18 years…

It would be another eighteen years before audiences would hear the complete work. On April 6, 1892 it was finally conducted by the composer himself at a “farewell” concert that Dvorak organized before his departure for the United States.

1887 revision…

Dvorak revised the 4th symphony at the end of 1887 and beginning of 1888. The first edition of the symphony was not published in until 1912. We can be sure that this edition differs considerably from the 1874 original.

This is the 2nd symphony that Brahms heard…

Soon after finishing the symphony Dvorak submitted its score (together with his third symphony and other works) with his application for a state scholarship, which he was ultimately granted. Brahms was a huge part of his success because he supported Dvorak from the first moment he heard his music while being on the jury for this scholarship. Dvorak did not know this until later.

A more mature work…

With each symphony you can hear the evolution of Dvorak’s style and unique voice. Before this symphony there was a rather consistent criticism of his lack of formal structure – which I’m not sure I totally agree with – but the idea was that he needed to conform more to traditional forms. Young Dvorak, much like young Tchaikovsky, was following his own path, a path that was not quite in line with the old German composers.

Wagner is always present…

There is an incorrect assumption that young Dvorak was unduly under the influence of Wagner. I think this is exaggerated, because I can hear Dvorak’s own unique voice as far back as I go in his composing. But the influence is certainly there. What I think is missed is that he never abandoned that influence. However, as time went on it was channeled more subtly so that it becomes much harder to hear it. This is due to a greater ability to take all these diverse influences and make them work together in an incredibly smooth way.

Little D Minor Symphony…

This symphony is in the same key as the seventh symphony, so the 4th symphony is sometimes given the subtitle “Little”, to distinguish it from the “Great” 7th symphony.

Leave a Reply