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Symphony No. 5 in F major, Op. 76

About the Work

Antonín Dvorák
Quick Look Composer: Antonín Dvorák
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Hugh Wolff, conductor / Emanuel Ax, piano, plays Chopin Apr. 4 - 6, 2013
© Thomas May

In contrast to Chopin, a surprising amount of the wide-ranging compositional output of Antonín Dvor?ák remains overlooked, underplayed, and otherwise neglected. His symphonies exemplify the problem acutely. Ever since its legendary premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1893, the “New World” Symphony has tended to eclipse Dvor?ák’s previous eight achievements in the genre. Yet the Ninth, one of the fruits of his sojourn in the United States (hence the subtitle), is by no means the Czech composer’s sole symphonic masterpiece.

It wasn’t until three years after completing his Fifth Symphony that Dvor?ák started developing an international reputation, thanks to the sensational reception of his Slavonic Dances, published in 1878. While the latter collection’s popularity paved the way for his later acceptance as a composer of ambitious works, it also pigeonholed Dvor?ák as an “ethnic” voice at some distance from the sophisticated art of mainstream tradition: a purveyor of colorful, folkloric miniatures akin to a “genre painter” specializing in Czech landscapes.

And that condescending attitude long left its mark on appraisals of Dvor?ák’s symphonic legacy as a whole—despite the acclaim won by his Ninth and other large-scale works. In Romantic Music’s Most Versatile Genius, his insightful survey of a “generalist” composer whose catalogue covers the gamut of genres, David Hurwitz points out that “an extremely strong national identity in music was a two-edged sword in a world steeped in cultural and racial stereotypes.” Dvor?ák was certainly “patriotic and proud of his heritage” but “wanted his music to be understood as great art generally, not as NOT E S ON THE PROGRAM a mere exotic curiosity…” The Fifth Symphony conveys a powerful impression of his artistic ambitions just as Dvor?ák was on the cusp of attaining wider recognition.

Together with Johannes Brahms, Dvor?ák shared a desire to stake his claim within the great symphonic tradition—a tradition for which both sought to find a place amid the radically changing cultural landscape of the later nineteenth century. Brahms in fact became an important advocate by connecting his Czech colleague with his own German publisher and talking him up within his circle. But Hurwitz argues that the way the relationship between both has historically been described tends to reinforce the cliché of Dvor?ák as “naïve country bumpkin with a knack for writing good tunes,” the son of a butcher and part-time musician who obediently learned about Serious Art from the German master.

In fact, observes Hurwitz, Dvor?ák and Brahms (only eight years older) enjoyed a rapport that worked in both directions, echoing the mutual admiration between Haydn and Mozart a century before them. While Dvor?ák did emulate aspects of the German’s symphonic mastery, he wrote the bulk of his symphonies—five of them—before Brahms had completed his first. And in these works Dvor?ák was already developing a personal approach to the tradition represented by Beethoven, into which he also introduced recent inspirations from his encounters with Wagner’s music and, more importantly, the rhythms and flavors of Czech folk music. The Fifth Symphony, composed in the summer of 1875, is a substantial work that consolidates what Dvor?ák had learned since producing his first two complete symphonies in 1865. (The score of the First went missing after he sent it to be judged in a competition—it turned up again only in 1923—and thus was never heard in his lifetime.)

The Fifth also marks a turning point in that it was the last one Dvor?ák composed while he was still just a “local hero” in his native Bohemia. But there were already signs of what was to come: in 1874, the year before writing it, a prestigious Viennese jury impressed by his Third Symphony awarded Dvor?ák a grant that offered his first real taste of financial freedom. After the Fifth there followed a five-year gap before the Symphony No. 6, written at the request of the Vienna-based conductor Hans Richter, by which time the Czech composer was starting to become famous abroad. The Fifth Symphony had its premiere in 1879 (in Prague), and Dvor?ák twice revised the score before it was published nearly a decade after that.

The music begins in a “pastoral” vein burbling through the woodwinds. This vein, associated with the home key of F major (the key of Beethoven’s own Pastoral Symphony), is a significant component of Dvor?ák’s symphonic vocabulary that also predominates in his Second and Eighth Symphonies, and it courses through the Fifth. But with its striding athletic rhythm, the first theme proper introduces a more energetic attitude, followed by a passionate second theme that repeatedly arcs up and down. Darker currents briefly intrude to round off the exposition, and the rest of the movement plays the pastoral and more dramatic elements off each other, with an especially imaginative reworking of materials in the recap before a gently fading close.

In the song-form (ABA) Andante con moto, Dvor?ák changes tack with a turn to A minor, beginning with a melancholy cello melody, while the major-key middle section reintroduces hints of the rapturous pastoral sensibility. He also uses an interesting gesture to suggest connections between the two inner movements: set a half-step up in Bflat major, the third movement begins with a wistful recollection of the Andante before moving quickening into a bright Scherzo. Both movements are in triple meter, and Dvor?ák’s beguiling woodwind scoring in both evokes hints of the opening movement.

It is for the finale, similar in proportions to the first movement, that Dvor?ák reserves his greatest surprises—the first one being the blustery urgency of its opening, which again reverts to A minor. Hurwitz even floats the intriguing possibility that Brahms may have remembered that strategy for his F major symphony (the Third), which also abruptly switches to the minor. Dvor?ák’s construction acquires an almost epic character as it explores several highly contrasting themes. The brass loom aggressively, and in the middle Dvor?ák adds the darker colors of the bass clarinet to his contingent of woodwinds, but this also marks the movement’s turning point. With references to the opening pastoral gesture, the recapitulation gives way to a coda of increasing optimism and confidence. Near the end Dvor?ák converts the pastoral impulse to a no-holds-barred outburst of brass fanfares, triumphantly concluding this early symphonic breakthrough.