The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Richard Freed

It was only about fifty years ago that Dvorák's nine symphonies were definitively renumbered to include the four early ones as well as the final five to which the composer assigned numbers upon publication. Even among those five, this one in D major, which Dvorák published as No. 1, was not really the first, having been preceded by the one in F major which his publisher issued as No. 3 and which we know now as No. 5. But the D major, now acknowledged as No. 6, was "No. 1" in a significant sense: it was the first symphony of Dvorák's to be heard outside his own country, and it was the first one he composed at the request of (if not an actual commission from) a major conductor.

In the middle of 1880 the illustrious conductor Hans Richter asked Dvorák for a symphony he might introduce with the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Symphony in D major was composed and orchestrated in just six or seven weeks, between late August and mid-October of that year. The first performance, however, was not given in Vienna, but in Prague, by an orchestra assembled from the ranks of that city's German and Czech opera houses (the Czech Philharmonic was not to give its first concert until January 4, 1896, with Dvorák conducting); the conductor was Adolf Cech, who presided over the premieres of several major works of both Dvorák and Smetana. Richter did not conduct the Symphony until May 15, 1882, and not in Vienna but in London--and even there the enterprising Sir August Manns beat him to it by a few weeks. As it turned out, it was years before the work was heard in Vienna.

If the Sixth hasn't quite the stature of Dvorák's three final symphonies, it is no less thoroughly characteristic of its composer. It is the work that marks his full maturity as a symphonist, and it is by any standards one of the most ingratiating symphonies of its time. Expansiveness and geniality are its keynotes, the native soil its substance. What Robert Simpson wrote of the early symphonies of Carl Nielsen--that they "express a growing, deepening sense of the sheer joy of being alive"--might surely be said of this radiant and robust work as well.

Several of Dvorák's symphonies seem to call for the designation "Pastoral" in one sense or another, and perhaps none more strongly than this one. The first movement might have stood on its own under the title the composer affixed a dozen years later to his concert overture In Nature's Realm. The opening may have been patterned after Brahms's similarly pastoral Symphony No. 2, in the same key of D major, but the particular contours and melodic turns are quite distinctly Dvorák's own--particularly the second theme, introduced by the cellos.

In the Adagio, one of Dvorák's most striking slow movements, the pastoral element deepens, to constitute an exquisite nocturne. Here warmth of heart is expressed both broadly and intimately, with the composer's lyric style manifest at its finest, together with an instinctive tastefulness that keeps the genuine sentiment of the various episodes from lapsing into sentimentality.

The scherzo, labeled Furiant, represents Dvorák's only use of that dance form in a symphony, though he had already made use of it in his chamber music as well as in his first book of Slavonic Dances. The trio is itself a remarkable episode, an intimately scaled, rather wistful reverie whose gentleness contrasts most effectively with the abandon of the furiant. This brilliant, folk-flavored movement brought the premiere audience to its feet with a demand for repetition that had to be honored. The opening of the finale again suggests a parallel with the Brahms Second, but again the sort of parallel that does not obscure Dvorák's own character or his great originality. The orchestra seems to tumble into the theme, at once good-natured and majestic, and more assertive new themes appear as the music proceeds, with fairly clear implications of some sort of national festival. The syncopated lead-in the coda gives an impression of high spirits held briefly in check before the final onrush of jubilation.