1872: Dvorak: The Symphony No. 3 in Eb major (“Brahms”), age 32

The 3rd symphony came seven years after his 2nd symphony. During the intervening  period he wrote numerous other works, including chamber music, vocal music, opera, and other orchestral music. This symphony captured the attention of Johannes Brahms, who was largely responsible for the world getting to know Dvorak’s music.

This 3rd symphony is the first symphony the world heard. The first two were never performed, and in fact they were not heard by anyone until after Dvorak’s death.

István Kertész

I. 00:01 – Allegro moderato (Eb major)

II. 11:38 – Adagio molto, tempo di marcia (C# minor → C# major)

III. 27:49 – Allegro vivace (Eb major)


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

Orchestration with tuba, English horn, piccolo, harp, and triangle.

There is a lot of tone color in Dvorak’s music, and part of that is his rich orchestration. He seemed to be especially partial to the English horn, which is kind of like an oboe but with a deeper, lower sound.

1st Movement:

Allegro moderato (Eb major): You will miss the first note if you set to one second, so you will have to rewind. I don’t know why people upload this way. My impression of this is almost like movie music – or a fantasy or tone poem. There is an ongoing divide through to today about Classical form vs looser and freer form. But I like this music. I like it a lot!

2nd Movement:

Adagio molto, tempo di marcia (C♯ minor → C♯ major): Again, this is just great music. Often it is more like a tone poem. Dvorak here takes a Wagnerian influence and makes it blossom. But he is not stealing or copying. By the way, moving from Eb to C# minor is a very out-of-the-box key change. If you get to C# major at the end of a movement, which is the same as Db major, you have to jump up full step to Eb, and that’s very unusual.

3rd Movement:

Allegro vivace (Eb major): This whole symphony has been a joy. I’ll be listening to this many times in the future, and I think it may be one of them most neglected symphonies I’ve ever heard. Just think that these early symphonies were almost totally ignored until around the 1950s.

Only three movements:

Symphonies with only three movements are rather unusual. For instance, Franck’s one and only symphony only had three. So this is not unique, but it’s also not common.

It is not known precisely when the work was created…

Dvorak scratched out the note on the title page with a knife so effectively that it is not possible to know more. However, the symphony was most likely composed in 1872.

Dvorak was a violist…

In fact, he was also an organist, and for many years he only survived financially with jobs playing. While he composed his third symphony, Dvorak was a violist in the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre in Prague. Supposedly this is what helped him get to know the works of Wagner, whose influence is pretty obvious in this symphony. Dvorak began composing his fourth symphony later the same year, so this is how Brahms came to hear both symphonies.

The Heirs of the White Mountain…

In the spring of 1873 he had his first major success with the hymn “The Heirs of the White Mountain,” an orchestral setting of an epic poem by Czech poet Vítězslav Hálek. So 1873 was a pivotal year. He was 32 at that time, and it’s sobering to remember that Schubert died at age 31.

Another composer, like Tchaikovsky, who often destroyed his own music…

I read that composing the symphony was a challenge for Dvorak, who, after orchestrating it, supposedly burned it because  he did not like it. Is this really true? Obviously he did not destroy the music, so perhaps it was a step, and he thought he could do a better job and started fresh.

Tighter structure…

You can tell from the length, around 36 minutes, that Dvorak was working on form. Like Tchaikovsky he was caught in between nationalists who wanted to move away from the old school, most German, and move towards something different. At his best, also like Tchaikovsky, Dvorak found a way to thread the needle, pleasing people on both sides.

The most Wagnerian of them all?

Maybe, But you will also hear the influence of Brahms, and that simply means that Dvorak was studying the music of other top composers. But does his music sound like Brahms or Wagner? No, it does not, and Wagner never wrote a symphony of this quality. Could he have? I think so, but he chose not to. So to knock the music as being under the influence of Wagner is just plain wrong.

Thematic unity…

The first and third movements center on E♭, F♯, and A♭ major, while the second movement is in C♯ minor, the dominant of F♯. In addition, both the second and third movements contain allusions to thematic material from the first movement to foster a sense of cohesion. In other words, over time top composers started to bind symphonies together more and more by referring to previous movements. They did so by using earlier themes, When a composer does this, you know that the whole work – in this case a symphony – is bound together by ideas. Each movement belongs to the work it is in.

Johannes Brahms didn’t complete his Symphony No. 1 until 1876…

Think about it. This was composed three years before Brahms revealed his first symphony to the world, yet he was eight years older. But this is Dvorak’s 3rd symphony. He was working very fast, and catching up fast. He was going from a promising but green composer, possibly a good one to being one of the best who has ever lived.

Even Beethoven did not sound fully original in his first two symphonies…

You will read, correctly, that these two first symphonies sound a lot like Haydn and Mozart, and they do. But no one suggest that they are also great symphonies. Dvorak deserves the same respect.

Wagner and Brahms…

You will read again and again about camps for both composers, and they fought. So Brahms was on one side, and Wagner was on the other. I don’t think these men liked each other, and certainly they did not respect the music of each other. But Dvorak’s career might never have gotten off the ground without Brahms, and Brahms deserves nothing but our admiration for supporting a young composer who often sounded more like a young Wagner than another young Brahms.

Dvorak  applied for a scholarship, and without Brahms he would not have gotten it…

Dvorak submitted this symphony along with his fourth symphony (completed in the early months of 1874) in an application for a state scholarship, which he was granted. Despite its unusual structure and Wagnerian influences, the symphony captured the attention of Johannes Brahms, notorious for being a musical conservative. My take is that he was more conservative about form and otherwise way more open-minded and liberal than other people understand.


This symphony was Dvorak’s breakthrough. It was the beginning of his association with the musical establishment in Vienna, and without Brahms that never would have happened. This was not just an older composer supporting a young, green composer. Brahms support never wavered for the rest of their lives. So I have huge respect for Brahms for what he did for the young man from Bohemia.

Premiere conducted by Bedřich Smetana…

The first performance was conducted by Bedřich Smetana who was up to that time the most famous composer in Bohemia (what we know of today as the Czech Republic.) It was premiered by Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on March 29, 1874,


Many composers are lifelong tinkerer’s of their own works, and Dvorak had this in common with Tchaikovsky.  Both were never satisfied. Both destroyed their music, sometimes very good music, and both wrote things we hear today only because friends saved the music they tried to trash. This was  revised by Dvorak in 1887–1889, though it was not printed until 1912,  after the composer’s death.

The 3rd was the 1st to be performed…

In another performance a few months later, Smetana included the scherzo from Dvorak’s 4th symphony, so this pretty much got the ball rolling.

My personal assessment…

This is not only a great symphony, it is one of the most shamelessly neglected in musical history and will most likely continue to gain attention and praise as time goes by.

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