Antonín Leopold Dvořák was born at Mühlhausen (Nelahozeves), Bohemia, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He began to sketch this symphony on December 13, 1884, and completed the score on March 17, 1885. On April 22, 1885, at Saint James’s Hall, London, he conducted the premiere at a concert of the Royal Philharmonic Society. The score as we now know it incorporates a few revisions made in June 1885. Theodore Thomas and the New York Philharmonic gave the first North American performance on January 8, 1886. The San Francisco Symphony played the work for the first time in December 1956, Enrique Jordá conducting; the most recent performances were given under the direction of David Robertson in June 2012. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about thirty-eight minutes.
When Volume II of Donald Francis Tovey’s Essays in Musical Analysis appeared in 1935, many of his readers must have been startled to come across this sentence: “I have no hesitation in setting Dvořák’s [Seventh] Symphony along with the C major Symphony of Schubert and the four symphonies of Brahms, as among the greatest and purest examples of this art-form since Beethoven.” Hardly any of Tovey’s readers are likely ever to have heard the D minor Symphony. Performances of any of Dvořák’s symphonies other than the New World were extremely rare, at least outside Czechoslovakia. For most people the “other” Dvořák symphonies were a discovery of the years after World War II.
If a reader at that time found Tovey's assessment of the D minor Symphony surprising, that was also because neither professional musicians nor listeners—again, outside Czechoslovakia—were inclined to take Dvořák seriously. He was the composer of the Symphony From the New World, the Carnival Overture, and the Slavonic Dances—a composer for popular concerts, a genre- and landscape-artist, friendly, colorful, but not a plausible person to have written one of the “greatest and purest” symphonies since Beethoven and hardly to be mentioned in the same breath as so secure a tenant in the pantheon as Johannes Brahms. The first to disagree with that judgment would have been the redoubtable Dr. Brahms himself, he who had used his prestige to set his younger colleague up with an important publisher, who helped him get a series of government grants, and was ever available to him with kindness and advice.
Dvořák’s fame at home had begun with the performance in 1873 of a patriotic cantata called The Heirs of the White Mountain. In 1878, at the urging of Brahms, the Berlin firm of Simrock added Dvořák to its list. Simrock began by issuing the Moravian Duets (for soprano and mezzo-soprano) that had so impressed Brahms in the first place, following this with the first set of Slavonic Dances for piano four-hands. The success of the latter work was enough to make an international reputation for Dvořák. The first performance of the Stabat Mater in Prague in 1880 made an immense impression; meanwhile, the Joachim Quartet took on his chamber music, and his work was also coming to be known in America, especially in New York as well as in Cincinnati and Saint Louis, with their big settlements of music-loving Germans.
The success of the Stabat Mater was nothing less than sensational when Joseph Barnby introduced it in London in 1883, and in that English world of choir festivals Dvořák became beloved and revered like no composer since Mendelssohn. The Royal Philharmonic Society invited him to conduct concerts in London in 1884. It was in response to the success of the Symphony No. 6 that he was invited immediately to write a new symphony for performance the following year. That was the present work.
The invitation set him afire with ambition. “Just now,” he wrote to his friend Judge Antonín Rus on December 22, 1884, “a new symphony (for London) occupies me, and wherever I go I think of nothing but my work, which must be capable of stirring the world, and God grant me that it will!” He had been excited by Brahms’s newest symphony, the Third, which he had gone to Berlin to hear in January 1884 and which gave him a new standard to shoot for. Moreover, as a letter to Simrock in February 1885 tells us, he was spurred by Brahms’s verbal exhortations as well as by his direct musical example. “I have been engaged on a new symphony for a long, long time; after all it must be something really worthwhile, for I don't want Brahms’s words to me, ‘I imagine your symphony quite different from this one [No. 6 in D major],’ to remain unfulfilled.”
The new work could hardly have been more different from its sunshine-and-blue-skies predecessor. For in the early 1880s, Dvořák was at a point of crisis. His mother, to whom he was close, had died in December 1882, and he was in distress over the steady deterioration of the mental health of Bedřich Smetana, the founding father of modern Czech music. (Smetana was released by death in May 1884.) Not least, Dvořák was perplexed about his own life. Being swept along on waves of success also meant being under growing pressure, internal and external, to consolidate his position and turn from a provincial composer into an international one. But “international” really meant Austro-German, and the idea was for him to move to Vienna, to write operas on German texts, and to quit pestering Simrock about having his first name appear as Ant., if not actually Antonín, rather than the German Anton. It was hard for him to say “no” to the well-intended advice of people like Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick; on the other hand, to deny his own ethnic and linguistic heritage was impossible for someone who identified himself so closely as did Dvořák with the rising tide of Bohemian nationalism. It added up to a troubled time for him. During this period and in this mood, he wrote his two masterpieces in tragedy, the F minor Trio, Opus 65, and the D minor Symphony.
Dvořák makes his way into the music with a theme as dark and undercover as it is determined. And before the violas and cellos even articulate that idea, a low D pedal (horns, drums, and basses) has already done its work in defining the atmosphere. Characteristically, Dvořák includes a wealth of thematic ideas. Quickly he builds to a climax, withdraws for a moment into a pastoral conversation of horn and oboe, then works up to an even more intense crisis before settling into a new key, B-flat major, and delighting us with a wonderfully spacious melody.
This is expanded magnificently until the rich exposition comes to a close just as though there were going to be a formal repeat. Instead, the music plunges—pianissimo but with great intensity—into the development. This moves swiftly and masterfully, covering much territory. The recapitulation is tautly condensed—it even begins in mid-paragraph—and only in the dying-away coda does the music draw more leisurely breaths.
The Adagio is among Dvořák’s most searching slow movements. Here, too, there is astonishing richness and variety of material, presented lucidly, with a profoundly original sense of order, and gloriously scored. The most personal paragraph is one in which a reiterated phrase with a melancholy falling seventh in pianissimo strings is punctuated by pairs of soft chords for woodwinds and pizzicato strings.
The Scherzo moves in flavorful cross-rhythms, the swinging theme in violins and violas falling into three broad beats per measure, while the cello-and-bassoon tune is in two. It is all force and energy, after which the trio brings contrast in every aspect, by being in a major key, by its gentleness, and by the skillful and evocative blurring of outlines and textures. The trios in Dvořák’s scherzos are usually picturesque in a folksy sort of way; this one is out of the ordinary not merely for its cunningly clouded sound but also in being so richly developed and extended. In most ways this scherzo is a moment of relaxation after the densely composed, attention-demanding two movements that precede it, but the coda reminds us that the context is one of tragedy.
The Finale also presents a wealth of themes, from the first impassioned gesture, through the chorale to which this immediately leads, to the confident A major tune for the cellos. The development is ample, the recapitulation taut, and the powerful coda turns at last to a solemn close in D major.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Rafael Kubelík conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Galleria) | István Kertész conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca Eloquence) | Libor Pešek conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Virgin Classics) | Witold Rowicki conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca)
Readings: Dvořák and His World, edited by Michael Beckerman (Princeton) | Antonín Dvořák: Musician and Craftsman (St. Martin’s Press) and Dvořák (Norton), both by John Clapham and both out-of-print, but findable at libraries and online book services | Dvořák: His Life and Music, by Gervase Hughes (Dodd, Mead)