ANTONIN DVORÁK: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, B. 141, op. 70

Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves (Muhlhausen), Bohemia, near Prague, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. Dvořák began sketching the D minor Symphony on 13 December 1884; the final score was completed on March 17, 1885. The composer conducted the first performance in a concert of the London Philharmonic Society in St. James’s Hall on April 22 of that year. Dvořák made a cut in the slow movement in June before declaring the score definitive. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; four horns; two trumpets; three trombone; timpani; and strings.

Five years elapsed between the composition of Dvořák’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, but they were years of increasing fame and he was busy composing in other genres, including the brilliant Scherzo capriccioso, the dramatic Hussite Overture, and the closely argued F-minor Trio. His opera Dimitrij (which, in terms of its plot, is a sequel to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov) had been performed in Prague and the comic opera The Cunning Peasant in Hamburg. Most important for Dvořák’s international reputation, though, was the extraordinary popularity that he enjoyed in London after the successful performance there of his Stabat Mater in 1883. He himself conducted the Stabat Mater and other works, including his Sixth Symphony, during a London visit made in the spring of 1884 at the invitation of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Not long after his return home, Dvořák learned that the Philharmonic Society had elected him a member; at the same time, it commissioned a new symphony.

Though the commission was tendered in June, Dvořák waited six months before starting to sketch, and even then the composition involved more than his usual amount of preliminary sketching and rewriting. The result, though, was a symphony that many consider to be his greatest single achievement, a work of powerful moods and wide ranging feeling, a nationalistic symphony that offers more than quaint touristy views of peasant dancing—a stereotype of the nationalistic schools—that offers, indeed, the highest degree of musical seriousness and refinement.

The Symphony opens with a theme of deep Slavic foreboding, lyrical in character but built of motives that could serve as the germ for development. The first page of the final score contains a note in the composer’s hand that reveals, “The main theme occurred to me when the festival train from Pest arrived at the State station in 1884.” The theme certainly has little of the “festival” character, but the train in question (Dvořák was noted for his fondness for locomotives and his familiarity with their schedules) brought dozens of anti Hapsburg patriots to a National Theater Festival in Prague, so it is not unlikely that the Czech colorations in melody and harmony arose from his patriotic mood. Some of the transitional themes are related to ideas in the Hussite Overture, another recent patriotic score composed in memory of the fourteenth century Czech religious reformer Jan Hus; these, too, no doubt arose from patriotic connections in Dvořák’s mind. These stern reflections usher in a rocking, sunny secondary theme that contrasts strikingly with the other material. The concentration of both development and recapitulation make this one of Dvořák’s densest symphonic movements in terms of sheer quantity of incident.

The Poco adagio begins with a square cut melodic phrase that comes to its ordained end after eight measures, raising visions of a possible theme and variations form with a series of starts and stops. But immediately after the statement of that theme, the musical thought opens out to become increasingly chromatic and expressive in a movement filled with wonderful touches of poignancy and colorful elaboration in the orchestral writing.

The Scherzo is written in 6/4 time, but from the beginning there is an exhilarating conflict between the two beats per measure of 6/4 (in the accompaniment) and the three beats per measure of 3/2 that the ear perceives in the melody. This is, in fact, a furiant, a characteristic Czech dance that plays with the various possible subdivisions of a six beat pattern. Dvořák worked hard at the rhythmic lightness evident throughout this utterly delightful movement, spontaneous in effect yet actually the result of much sketching and rewriting to achieve that bubbling effervescence.

In stark contrast, the Finale begins in a mood of tragedy—starting right from the intense opening phrase, the last three notes of which are repeated to begin a slow, hymnlike march—with vivid themes developed to a majestic close that only turns definitively to the major key in the last bars. —© Steven Ledbetter