Program Notes, ©2013 Lori Newman

Program Notes

Antonín Dvořák                       Symphony No. 7 in d minor, op. 70  (1884 – 1885)
(Born 1841, Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, Bohemia; died 1904, Prague, Czech Republic)

Throughout music history we can find instances of older, more established composers mentoring younger composers and opening doors that otherwise would be closed to them.  In some of these instances the mentors were teachers, in others, just admirers of the other’s work.  There is Josef Haydn mentoring Ludwig van Beethoven, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky mentoring Sergei Rachmaninoff, Robert Schumann mentoring Johannes Brahms, and Brahms returning the favor, by mentoring the Czechoslovakian nationalist composer Antonín Dvořák.  Brahms had become aware of the little-known composer while serving on the Austrian State Stipendium, a jury convened to award money to talented, young composers.  Brahms was immediately impressed with Dvořák’s music (Dvořák won the stipend) and the two men eventually became friends and mutual admirers of one another’s music.  In a show of devotion, Brahms even convinced his long-time publisher, Fritz Simrock, to sign Dvořák.

The premiere of Brahms’s Third Symphony in 1883 so deeply affected Dvořák, that it was a turning point for the composer.  Dvořák found the new symphony of Brahms to be astounding and considered it the finest symphony ever written.  Dvořák thought he perhaps needed to become more international (read Austro-German) in his writing style for his music to have such far-reaching appeal as that of Brahms; but to do so, would mean perhaps losing his folk, nationalist style which he so valued.  As Dvořák pondered this conundrum he suffered two tragedies in close succession: the death of his mother, just weeks after the premiere of Brahms’s Third, and the mental decline and eventual commitment of his colleague and compatriot, Bedřich Smetana, in April of 1884.

In the midst of these tragedies, Dvořák received an astounding honor:  Based on the success of his Stabat Mater in London in 1883, the esteemed Royal Philharmonic Society (the same Society which commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) commissioned a symphony from Dvořák.  It would be the only symphony of the composer’s to be written as a commission.  The prospect was dizzying for Dvořák, but he set to work fervently in December of 1884 and finished his Symphony No. 7 in March of 1885.  (The symphony was originally published as Symphony No. 2 – it was the seventh symphony to be written, but only the second to be published.  All of Dvořák’s symphonies were later renumbered based on chronology of composition, not publication order.)  He wrote in December 1885, “I am now busy with the new Symphony (for London) and wherever I go I have no thought for anything but my work, which must be such as to move the world — well, God grant that it may be so!”

Much of Dvořák’s music is known for its brightness and folk theme-filled melodies.  The Seventh Symphony is a departure from this style, a little less sunny (some unofficially refer to the Seventh as Dvořák’s “tragic” symphony), and containing less folk material than his earlier works.  This is not to say that the work does not contain decidedly Slavic elements, they are just less prominent than in many of his earlier compositions, for which he had gained his reputation.  The first movement is written in sonata-allegro form, with its first theme, dark and foreboding, its second, lyrical and pastoral.  The second movement is considered one of Dvořák’s finest works, and the heart of the symphony.  It is in this movement that the “tragic” is most prevalent.  The scherzo movement is perhaps the most overtly Slavic, inspired by the furiant, a Bohemian dance best known for its shifting of accents and cross-rhythms.  The finale opens as did the first movement, tormented and dark.  Themes abound in this movement, but ultimately, Dvořák turns tragedy around and ends his Symphony in d minor, resoundingly, in D Major.

While Dvořák’s symphonic music did not become popular in the United States until after World War II (save the Ninth, “From the New World”), it was well-known in England.  In 1935, the preeminent British musicologist, Sir Donald Francis Tovey, unequivocally stated, “I have no hesitation in setting Dvorák’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.”  Dvořák had successfully accomplished his goal of composing in a style that was appealing internationally, and in the process, became a first-class symphonist, worthy of being mentioned alongside his mentor, Johannes Brahms.

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