Program Notes

Symphony No. 8 in G major, Opus 88

Antonín Dvořák

BORN: September 8, 1841. Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, Bohemia

DIED: May 1, 1904. Prague

COMPOSED: Begun on August 26, completed November 8, 1889, in Prague

WORLD PREMIERE: February 2, 1890. The composer conducted the National Theatre Orchestra, in Prague

US PREMIERE: February 26, 1892. Arthur Nikisch conducted the Boston Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—October 1930. Basil Cameron conducted. MOST RECENT—June 2016. James Conlon conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 34 mins

THE BACKSTORY As a child, Antonín Dvořák did not reveal musical talent. Though his family was poor, they found the means to enable him to take music lessons with the local schoolmaster and, later, with an organist in a nearby town. In 1857 he entered the Prague Organ School, where he received a thorough academic grounding in theory and performance. Soon he secured a spot as violist in a dance orchestra. The group prospered, and in 1862 its members formed the founding core of the Provisional Theater orchestra, the ensemble in which Dvořák would play principal viola for nine years, performing under the direction of such conductors as Bedřich Smetana and Richard Wagner.

During these early years, Dvořák also honed his skills as a composer, and by 1871 he left the orchestra to devote himself to composing. This entailed considerable financial risk, but he eked out a living by giving piano lessons and playing the organ. In 1874 he received his first real break as a composer. He was awarded the Austrian State Stipendium, a grant newly created by the Ministry of Education to assist young, poor, gifted musicians—which exactly defined Dvořák’s status at the time. That he received the award twice again, in 1876 and 1877, underscores how his financial situation was improving slowly, if at all, in the mid-1870s. Fortunately for Dvořák, the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick enjoyed his music and, in 1877, encouraged him to send some scores to the great Johannes Brahms. Brahms was so delighted with what he received that he recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Simrock, who immediately published two collections of Dvořák’s pieces and contracted a first option on all of the composer’s new works. All of which is to say that, if Dvořák had not received this critical support at the eleventh hour, he might have given up composing. The world came precariously close to never hearing his mature masterpieces, such as his great chamber works and his last four symphonies. As it was, these late pieces were slow to make their way into the international repertory. Except for the New World Symphony, the Carnival Overture, and the Slavonic Dances, Dvořák remained little played outside his native country until practically the middle of the twentieth century. In the Czech lands, however, Dvořák finally enjoyed the respect he deserved by the time he got around to his Eighth Symphony.

THE MUSIC Compared to Dvořák’s somber Seventh Symphony, composed four years earlier, this G major Symphony is decidedly genial and upbeat; and yet, if we listen carefully, we may be surprised by how much minor-key music actually inhabits this major-key symphony, beginning with the solemn introduction, richly scored to spotlight mid-range instruments. But joyful premonitions intrude, thanks to the birdcall of the solo flute. This develops into the ebullient principal theme of the movement, which, when it has run its course, we are likely to recall as overwhelmingly pastoral and optimistic. And yet the mournful music of the introduction returns as the movement progresses, and the development section is full of forbidding passages. This tempering of the bucolic spirit was deliberate. When Dvořák sketched the movement it was unerringly cheerful. The minor-key introduction arrived as an afterthought, as did the considerably more difficult trick of working reminiscences of it into the existing flow of the piece. In the end, this opening movement provides a splendid example of how the sun seems to shine more brightly after it has been darkened by passing shadows.

Similar contrasts mark the Adagio, which even in its opening measures displays considerable ambiguity of mood: lusciously warm-hearted string sequences leading to intimations of a somber march (still in the strings). A third of the way through the movement this reflective disposition is interrupted by what sounds like a village band playing an arrangement from Wagner. The gentle music returns and seems to be ushering this movement to an end when the Wagnerian passion erupts yet again, now even more forcefully, after which this subtly scored movement wends to a peaceful conclusion.

The folk-flavored third movement—a waltz, perhaps—is a bit melancholy, too, its wistfulness underscored by the minor mode. This serves as the traditional scherzo section, though its spirit is more in line with a Brahmsian intermezzo. The central trio section presents some of the most agreeably countrified material Dvořák ever wrote.

Following an opening fanfare, the dance-like finale unrolls as a delightful set of variations (though interrupted by a minor-mode episode) on a theme of inherent breadth and dignity. In his 1984 biography Dvořák, Hans-Hubert Schönzeler offers some insights to the finale in his discussion of the Symphony No. 8, which he considers overall “the most intimate and original within the whole canon of Dvořák’s nine”: “[Dvořák] himself has said that he wanted to write a work different from the other symphonies, with individual force worked out in a new way, and in this he certainly succeeded, even though perhaps in the Finale his Bohemian temperament got the better of him. . . . The whole work breathes the spirit of Vysoká, and when one walks in those forests surrounding Dvořák’s country home on a sunny summer’s day, with the birds singing and the leaves of trees rustling in a gentle breeze, one can virtually hear the music. . . . [The] last movement just blossoms out, and I shall never forget [the Czech conductor] Rafael Kubelík in a rehearsal when it came to the opening trumpet fanfare, say to the orchestra: ‘Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle—they always call to the dance!’”—James M. Keller

More about The Music:

Recordings: Manfred Honeck leading the Pittsburgh Symphony (Reference Recordings) | Rafael Kubelík and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Classical)  |  Jiří Bĕlohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic (Chandos) 

Reading: Dvořák, by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler (Marion Boyars)  |  Dvořák, by Alec Robertson (Collier’s Great Composers Series)  |  Antonín Dvořák, by Otakar Šourek (Orbis-Prague)  |  Antonín Dvořák: Letters and Reminiscences, edited by Otakar Šourek (Artia-Prague)  |  Dvořák and His World, edited by Michael Beckerman (Princeton)

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