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Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70

About the Work

Antonín Dvorák
Quick Look Composer: Antonín Dvorák
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Iván Fischer, conductor/Bartók & Dvorák Feb. 5 - 7, 2009
© Richard Freed
If Bartók was little known to the greater part of our musical public until the huge success of the Concerto for Orchestra led to a sharp upturn in the circulation of his other works, Dvorák's status as one of the most beloved composers of concert music rested for years—at least in our country—on a single symphony (the one called From the New World), a few other works composed or introduced here during his three-year sojourn in New York as director of the National Conservatory of Music, and some of his Slavonic Dances. It was not until the middle of the last century that the New World was properly identified as the last of his nine, rather than the last of only five, and his other symphonies began to circulate here and in the rest of the world as they had been doing in his own country. Bruno Walter was largely responsible for the belated but enthusiastic reception of No. 8 in G major (still billed as No. 4 when Walter championed it here), and the German conductor Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt became similarly identified with No. 7 (originally published as No. 2). Their efforts were effectively augmented by such other conductors as the Czech-born Walter Susskind and the Hungarian-born George Szell, who had held a prominent position in Prague before coming to America.

This symphony marked an important milestone in Dvorák's creative life. It was the only one he composed under a commission, and that commission, in 1884, came from the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society in London, the same organization for which Beethoven had composed his Ninth Symphony more than 60 years earlier. Dvorák recognized that gesture from London as both an opportunity and a challenge. He was at the time experiencing an acute awareness of his responsibility as a symphonist, brought on, it appears, by the recently introduced Third Symphony of his friend and benefactor Johannes Brahms. Dvorák had enormous respect and admiration for Brahms, as well as gratitude, and he wanted to be able to write such a symphony himself. At the same time, he was troubled by uncertainly about the sort of course he might choose for his compositions from that point on: whether to proceed in the Czech national character with which his music had become so readily identified—and so enthusiastically accepted—or to adopt a more "international" approach (which is to say, a German one) in a bid for the still broader level of recognition enjoyed by Brahms.

It was in such a frame that Dvorák plunged into the composition of his Seventh Symphony, declaring that the new work "must be capable of stirring the world, and may God grant that it will!" He began work on the score on December 13, 1884, completed it on March 17, 1885, and conducted the first performance five weeks later (April 22) at St. James's Hall in London. As the Symphony evolved, it not only showed the composer's mastery on a new level, but confirmed no less certainly both the depth and the practical effectiveness of his spontaneous and deepfelt response to his native environment. If the Czech influences are somewhat more subdued in this symphony than in its predecessor (the D major, Op. 60, now known as No. 6), the listener will nonetheless hardly fail to be aware of its assertively Slavonic character, which makes itself felt with increasing urgency throughout the work, to the point of unreserved apotheosis in the finale. Perhaps because of the urgency Dvorák himself felt in creating the work, it holds another distinction, as the only one of his mature symphonies to be characterized by so dark and passionate a nature that it might bear the title "Tragic." Irrespective of the aptness of such a label, this glorious work has come to be regarded by more than a few as the greatest of Dvorák's symphonies.

A restless and somewhat ominous theme opens the first movement, a theme, one might say, that gives off a sense of being summoned forth to great deeds. The second theme, in sharp contrast, is a lyric one which may represent a gesture in Brahms's direction, in that it might be regarded as a rhythmically modified citation of the cello theme in the slow movement of the older composer's Second Piano Concerto, a work introduced two years before the premiere of this symphony. (Brahms himself, of course, had adapted that theme from one of his own songs.) The movement's climax, implicit in the very design of the first theme, is achieved brilliantly but unhurriedly, and in its wake all is subdued; like a wild blaze hastily smothered, the movement ends quietly but still smoldering.

The slow movement, noble and expansive in Dvorák's warmest coloring, suggests a restorative ingathering of strength. Its harmonies are those fo the Slavonic Rhapsodies and Slavonic Dances. A rapturous horn solo intensifies the specifically Bohemian pastoral mood and illumines the second element of the motto Dvorák proclaimed for himself during his work on this score: "God, Love and Country!" In its original form this movement was a good deal longer than it is in the published score: after the London premiere Dvorák trimmed some 40 bars from it and advised his publisher, Simrock of Berlin, "Now I am convinced that there is not a single superfluous note in the work."

In the scherzo, with its vibrant cross-rhythms and suggestions of both the polka and the furiant, the Czech element comes brilliantly to the fore, showing the composer a good deal closer to his familiar sunlit manner. The trio provides the loveliest contrasts, with its horn calls and bird songs expanding on the pastoral mood of the preceding movement.

The tragic mood felt in the opening movement returns in the suppressed outburst that initiates the finale. Out of this opening grows a vigorous Slavonic march, which leads to a new theme, more lyrical and warm-hearted. This is absorbed into the march itself as it proceeds, but it breaks away momentarily to assume the character of a serene yet exultant hymn, evocative of peaceful fields and open skies. The march then resumes with renewed vigor and assertiveness, and the end bespeaks defiance more than jubilation. The eminently quotable Donald Francis Tovey summed up the effect in a single perceptive sentence:

"The solemn tone of the close is amply justified by every theme and every note of this great work, which never once falls below the highest plane of tragic music, nor yet contains a line which could have been written by any composer but Dvorák."