The Kennedy Center

Slavonic Dance in C major, Op. 72, No. 7

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Richard Freed

Dvor?k composed his second book of Slavonic Dances, Op. 72, originally for piano duet, between June 4 and July 9, 1886, and orchestrated them between November of that year and January of the next. The composer himself conducted the first performances of three of the dances in this set, No. 7 among them, on January 6, 1887, in Prague. Antal Dor?ti conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this piece, on October 26, 27 and 28, 1976; Michael Morgan conducted the most recent ones, on January 18 and 19, 1995.

The score calls for a piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings. Duration, 3 minutes.

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When Johannes Brahms persuaded his own publisher, Fritz Simrock of Berlin, to take on the music of his younger colleague Dvor?k, in 1877, the publisher had recently enjoyed great success with Brahms's Hungarian dances, for piano duet, and one of his first suggestions to his new client was that he compose some similar pieces based on the folk music of his own country. Dvor?k happily complied: he composed the eight pieces that constitute his first book of Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, between March 18 and May 7, 1878, and orchestrated them that August. By 1886, when he got round to write his second such collection, Op. 72, he was 45 years old and one of the most respected composers of his time, having just completed his masterly Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, on a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London, the same organization that had commissioned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony more than six decades earlier. This second book was created even more quickly than the earlier one, but the orchestrations were not quite as quick in coming; Dvor?k, in fact, completed the last of the orchestral settings only the day before the concert in which he introduced the one we hear in the present concerts.

The essential difference between Dvor?k's Slavonic Dances and Brahms's Hungarian ones is that the German composer, dealing with a colorful "exotic" strain, used real folk tunes and offered his dances as "arrangements," advising Simrock that they were "innocent Gypsy children, whom I did not beget, ut merely brought up with bread and milk." Dvor?k, however, in dealing with his own native idiom, cited actual folk material hardly at all; for the most part he created his own themes in the style of folk music. That there has been any misunderstanding on this point only attests to his success in capturing the authentic flavor in wholly original music.

These original pieces are also altogether more ambitious in their proportions than the Hungarian Dances. While Brahms sought to do no more than present his engaging discoveries in the form of attractive miniatures, Dvor?k approached the writing of his Slavonic Dances with a broader objective in mind, and each of them emerged, especially in the orchestral versions, as a sort of nationalistic rhapsody in the guise of an idealized dance form.

It is significant, too, that Dvor?k did not use the title Czech Dances or Bohemian Dances (as his senior compatriot Bedrich Smetana did in labeling some of his own piano pieces), but chose the broader term Slavonic. While the eight dances of the Op. 46 set do relate almost exclusively to Czech dance forms, those in Op. 72 may be said to represent a "pan-Slavonic" approach: only three of the eight dances in this set are Bohemian in character, the other five representing forms from Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Serbia. The vigorous penultimate number performed in the present concerts, which happens to be the most concise in either set, is a stunningly brilliant kolo, which might be regarded as the Serbian counterpart to the fiery Bohemian furiants that open and close the Op. 46 collection.