Portrait of Antonin Dvorak
Portrait of Antonin Dvorak

Everything you need to know about Dvořák's symphonies

Composer of concertos, operas and numerous melodies, Dvořák is nonetheless most recognised for his nine symphonies. At the heart of each and every one lies his beloved Bohemia.

Above all else, Antonín Dvořák is remembered for his rich melodic creation. Though he may not have invented a "modern" music, many nonetheless envied the ease with which he excelled in this domain, heavily influenced by German music and in particular the works of Schubert, Wagner, and Brahms.

From his nine symphonies only five were published during his lifetime. Similarly, though he was unable to conduct them all, this did not prevent him from gaining great international acclaim, particularly in America where he composed his final symphony. 

Symphonies no.1 and no.2 were almost destroyed!

Dvořák composed his first two symphonies back to back in 1865, at only 23 years old. An ambitious first attempt, and one which almost never saw the light of day. The composer submitted his Symphonie no.1 in c minor to a competition in Germany. Unfortunately, his work was refused and he was unable to retrieve his manuscript. Defeated, the Czech composer would later list the work as "burnt or destroyed".

However, the story does not end there. As told by the bigorapher Guy Erismann, a young man by the name of Rudolf Dvořák, unrelated to Antonín, discovered the manuscript in an antiquarian bookshop twenty years later and purchased it, intrigued by the homonym. Following his death, the author of the work is eventually identified in 1923 by Otakar Šourek, Dvořák's biographer. It is not until 4 October 1936, however, that the work is finally performed for the first time, in Brno.

Questions still surround its subtitle, "The Bells of Zlonice". Though undoubtedly a reference to the village where Dvořák was raised, reference repeatedly echoed throughout the symphony, the composer never elaborated on this. The subtitle does not even appear on the original manuscript, added only years later.

The origin of the Symphony no.2 in B flat major is far less eventful. So unsatisfied was Dvořák of his work that he came close to destroying it! Brimming with the throes of passion, the work seems to have blossomed from the love Dvořák felt for Josefina Čermáková, his young student. Unfortunately for the composer, this love was unrequited.

Symphonies no.3 and no.4 : On the German side

In 1873, at the age of 32, Dvořák married Anna Čermáková, contralto at the Prague Provisional Theatre and none other than…the young sister of Josefina. Perhaps mourning an unanswered affection or perhaps out of sincere attachment, similar to Haydn and Mozart before him, Dvořák seems strangely to have transposed his sentiments onto the younger sister.

At the time, Dvořák had already begun making a name for himself within Prague's artistic circle. He started composing his Symphony no.3 during the summer of 1873. The work boasts the unique feature of having only three movements. Wagnerian influences are also immediately obvious: Guy Erismann discerns "ecstatic chords in the style of Lohengrin" at the end of the second movement, and "passages reminiscent of Tannhäuser" in the final movement. It is said that the young Dvořák was forever moved by Wagner after attending in 1864 three concerts conducted by the German composer.

First performed on 29 March 1874, the Symphony no.3 is the first of Dvořák's symphonies that the composer was able to witness being performed, conducted by Bedřich Smetana no less. It was also Smetana that first performed the Scherzo from the Symphony no.4 in d minor in May of the same year. Straightforward and powerful, the work is yet again inspired by Wagner but also by the works of Johannes Brahms, who would eventually become Dvořák mentor. André Lischke recognises within the work in particular Brahms's "fiery power".

Symphonies no.5 and no.6 : A Slavic assertion

1875 was a year of intense creativity for the Czech composer. He wrote in particular his famous Serenade for strings in E major, his String Quintet in G major, his opera Vanda, and his Symphony no.5 in F major, composed in only 5 weeks during June and July.

The work expresses a strong pastoral identity through its use of rustic and bucolic ideas.  The Andante draws froms the dumka, a melancholic air common amongst Slavic composers. Detached from the rest of the symphony by its use of the key of a minor and by its structure, the Finale pulls the listener swiftly out of the Spring atmosphere hitherto created.

According to Guy Erismann, the Symphony no.6 in D major is the "pinnacle" of the composer's "Slavic" period. Dvořák replaces the traditional Scherzo with a Furiant, "the first occurence in a symphony of this energetic Czech dance", according to André Lischke. Interestingly, this particular Furiant was used as a encore during the work's premiere in Prague on 25 March 1881.

The Symphony no.6 – published at the time as no.1 - marked the beginning of Dvořák's international career. Hans Richter, to whom the work is dedicated, conducted the work in London in 1882 in front of an enthusiastic audience.

"London has eyes and ears only for this miraculous musician, this "bohemian", "this butcher's apprentice turned conductor"", Guy Erismann, Antonín Dvořák.

Symphonies no.7 and no.8: Brahms, I love you, I love you not

A work showing great maturity, the Symphony no.7 in d minor blends Czech and German musical influences. Having just heard Brahms's Symphony no.3, Dvořák was greatly seduced and sought to match the German master. It was he who introduced Dvořák to his own editor Fritz Simrock, and contributed to the emergence and popularity of Dvořák's music in Europe.

Challenge accomplished by Dvořák ! In contrast with those composed before, in particular the fourth symphony with which it shares the same key, the Symphony no.7 is a tormented work filled with Germanic influences, in particular its Wagnerian accents in the second movement. André Lischke writes that Dvořák was so enthusiastic by German conductor Hans von Bülow's interpretation of the work that he fixed an image of the conductor onto the cover of the score and commented "Hurrah! You brought this work to life!"

Though Dvořák often and openly expressed his admiration of Brahms, he moved away from this influence in his Symphony no.8 in G major. The symphony was composed in peace, far away in the Vysoká countryside during the summer of 1889. When not composing, Dvořák would often take long walks through the countryside, the forests, and the fields, striking up conversations with locals along the way. "It is in this intimacy that came his musical ideas", writes biographer Otakar Šourek.

This time, the composer experimented with the form of the genre, moving away somewhat from the classical symphonic structure. Brahms did not attempt to conceal his disappointment when faced with this musical boldness. Though Dvořák gave no programmatic indication, it is clear that the work celebrates nature and "the wonder of man faced with the power of Creation".

Symphony no.9 : New or Old World ?

Barely named professor at the Prague Conservatoire in 1891, Dvořák received an even more appealing offer...that of Director of the New York Conservatoire! Offer swiftly accepted, Dvořák left his native land for three years.

The first of his American works, the Symphony no.9 in e minor, ("From the New World"), is today considered one of the composer's most famous works. Colourful, vibrant and modern, it expresses undeniably the composer's experiences during his time in America. In particular, the work draws upon black and Native American music from the end of the 19th century. The Largo quotes a scene from The Song of Hiawatha, Native American-influenced epic poem by Henry Longfellow.

"… It is a Czech music through which speaks my native country, but without my time in America I could never have created it», Antonín Dvořák (quoted by Guy Erismann)

Dvořák is nonetheless ostensibly nostalgic, and it is ultimately a Slavic music that lies at the heart of the symphony. Bohemia in all its glory is felt throughout, be it by its use of traditional and playful rhythms or its poignant melodies.

By Charlotte Landru-Chandès

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