About this Recording
8.550270 - DVORAK: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7

Antonin Dvořák (1841 -1904)
Symphony No.5 in F Major, Opus 76
Symphony No.7 in D Minor, Opus 70


Antonin Dvořák was born in 1841, the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, in Bohemia, some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he should follow the example of his father and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end he left school at the age of eleven. There is no reliable record of his competence in butchery, but his musical abilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice, where he continued an apprenticeship started at home, learning German and improving his knowledge of music, rudimentary skill in which he had already acquired at home and in the village band and church. Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ school, from which he graduated two years later.

In the years that followed, Dvořák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak which was to form the nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czech operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride were performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořák resigned from the theatre orchestra, to devote more time to composition, as his music began to draw some favourable local attention. Two years later he married and early in 1874 became organist of the church of St. Adalbert. During this period he continued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a series of compositions that gradually become known to a wider circle.

Further recognition came in 1875 with the award of a Ministry of Education stipendium by a committee in Vienna that included the critic Eduard Hanslick and Brahms. The following year Dvořák failed to win the award, but was successful in 1877. His fourth application brought the personal interest of Hanslick and Brahms and a connection with Simrock, the latter's publisher, who expressed a wish to publish the Moravian Duets and commissioned a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. These compositions won particular popularity. There were visits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever at that time have won in Vienna. The series of compositions that followed secured him an unassailable position in Czech music and a place of honour in the larger world.

Early in 1891 Dvořák became professor of composition at Prague Conservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a venture which, it was hoped, would lay the foundations for American national music. The very Bohemian musical results of Dvořák's time in America are well known. Here he wrote his Ninth Symphony, From the New World, its themes influenced, at least, by what he had heard of indigenous American Indian and Negro music, his American Quartet and a charming sonatina for violin and piano. In 1895 he returned home to his work at the Prague conservatory, writing in the following year a series of symphonic poems and before the end of the century two more operas to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.

Dvořák's nine symphonies span a period of nearly thirty years. The first two were written in 1865, and the last in 1893. Both the numbering of the symphonies and the opus numbers assigned to them have caused some confusion. The first four symphonies were originally omitted from the list, so that the last five were numbered, although not in order of composition, the basis of the more usual numbering today. Opus numbers were also manipulated to some extent, a simple subterfuge to outwit Simrock by allocating earlier opus numbers to new compositions, on which he would otherwise have had an option.

The Symphony No.5 in F major, Opus 76, was written in 1875, revised in 1877, and dedicated to Liszt's son-in-Iaw, the conductor Hans von Bülow. Dvořák revised the work again in 1887 and it was first published with its present opus number, although the composer insisted that it was in fact his Opus 24, composed a decade before his Sixth and Seventh, published by Simrock as Opus 60 and Opus 70 in 1882 and 1885 respectively. While Dvořák might attempt to outwit Simrock by giving newer works earlier opus numbers, avoiding his obligation to the publisher, the latter could outwit the public by offering higher opus numbers, arguing greater experience and novelty from the composer.

The F major Symphony is scored for the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle and strings, with the one less usual addition of a bass clarinet. The first theme, introduced by the clarinets, quickly leads to something more energetic and grandiose, in a movement that combines characteristically Bohemian turns of melody and harmonic colours with traditional symphonic form.

The slow movement, with its opening cello theme, accompanied by the lower strings, moves from A minor into what seems at first to be A major, in music that has a characteristic ambivalence of mode. It is followed by a lively B flat major scherzo, introduced rhetorically by the cello, before the principal theme is heard. The trio section, in D flat, is followed by are, petition of the scherzo, without alteration.

The closing movement of the symphony starts with a strongly marked theme that skilfully and unusually avoids the key of F major for a considerable time, while the second theme, that conventionally might have appeared in the key of C major, is in G flat. The bass clarinet makes its appearance as the stormy central development section relaxes, and the movement goes on to a brief recollection of the first movement, eventually entrusted to the trombone.

Dvořák wrote his Symphony No.7 in D minor, Opus 70, for the London Philharmonic Society, after his successful appearance in London in March, 1884. He started work, it seems, in December, and the symphony was completed by the middle of March, 1885, to be performed in London on 22nd April at St. James's Hall. Four years later Hans von Bülow conducted the symphony in Berlin so successfully that the composer decorated the autograph score with a portrait of the conductor, adding below the words "Glory to you! You brought this work to life." The work owes something to the impression on Dvořák of Brahms's F major Symphony and that composer's remark that he supposed the new symphony would be quite different from the D major.

The symphony opens in a sombre mood, but even the first theme, played by violas and cellos, has the suggestion of Bohemian inspiration about it, although this is possibly the least obviously rational of the five later symphonies of Dvořák and the influence of Brahms remains clear enough, particularly in the second subject, introduced by flute and clarinet.

The second movement starts with a fine clarinet melody in F major, leading to a further melody for flutes and oboes that ventures further afield in its harmonies. There is a new theme introduced by violin and cello, followed by the French horn, and the melodies we have heard are then developed. The following scherzo is highly typical of the composer in its rhythms, its double theme preserving the darker mood of the whole symphony, while the trio section breathes an air of country serenity.

The final movement shows yet again Dvořák's considerable powers of invention. A first theme of great potential leads to a second emphatic melody, of which the woodwind have provided a foretaste, and a third A major theme is introduced by the cellos. The movement contains much that seems replete with tragic foreboding, before the triumphant return of the key of D major with which the symphony ends.

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