Antonin Dvořák was born in 1841 , the son of a butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, in Bohemia, some forty miles north of Prague. It was natural that he shou/d follow the example of his father and grandfather by learning the family trade, and to this end he left school at the age of eleven. There is no reliable record of his competence in butchery, but his musical abilities were early apparent, and in 1853 he was sent to lodge with an uncle in Zlonice, where he continued an apprenticeship started at home, learning German and improving his knowledge of music, rudimentary skill in which he had already acquired at home and in the village band and church. Further study of German and of music at Kamenice, a town in northern Bohemia, led to his admission, in 1857, to the Prague Organ school, from which he graduated two years later.
In the years that followed, Dvořák earned his living as a viola-player in a band under the direction of Karel Komzak which was to form the nucleus of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra, established in 1862. Four years later Smetana was appointed conductor of the opera-house, where his Czech operas The Brandenburgers in Bohemia and The Bartered Bride were performed. It was not until 1871 that Dvořák resigned from the theatre orchestra, to devote more time to composition, as his music began to draw some favourable local attention. Two years later he married and early in 1874 became organist of the church of St. Adalbert. During this period he continued to support himself by private teaching, while busy on a series of compositions that gradually become known to a wider circle.
Further recognition came in 1875 with the award of a Ministry of Education stipendium by a committee in Vienna that included the critic Eduard Hanslick and Brahms. The following year Dvořák failed to win the award, but was successful in 1877. His fourth application brought the personal interest of Hanslick and Brahms and a connection with Simrock, the latter's publisher, who expressed a wish to publish the Moravian Duets and commissioned a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. These compositions won particular popularity. There were visits to Germany and to England, where he was always received with greater enthusiasm than a Czech composer would ever at that time have won in Vienna. The series of compositions that followed secured him an unassailable position in Czech music and a place of honour in the larger world.
Early in 1891 Dvořák became professor of composition at Prague Conservatory. In the summer of the same year he was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, a venture which, it was hoped, would lay the foundations for American national music. The very Bohemian musical results of Dvořák's time in America are well known. Here he wrote his Ninth Symphony, From the New World, its themes influenced, at least, by what he had heard of indigenous American Indian and Negro music, his American Quartet and a charming sonatina for violin and piano. In 1895 he returned home to his work at the Prague conservatory, writing in the following year a series of symphonic poems and before the end of the century two more operas to add to the nine he had already composed. He died in Prague in 1904.
Dvořák's nine symphonies span a period of nearly thirty years. The first two were written in 1865, and the last in 1893. Both the numbering of the symphonies and the opus numbers assigned to them have caused some confusion. The first four symphonies were originally omitted from the list, so that the last five were numbered, although not in order of composition, the basis of the more usual numbering today. Opus numbers were also manipulated to some extent, a simple subterfuge to outwit Simrock by allocating earlier opus numbers to new compositions, on which he would otherwise have had an option.
The Fourth Symphony was written in the first three months of 1874, some six months after the Third. It was first performed in Prague in 1892 and not published until 1912. Dvořák returns here to the traditional four movements and begins to turn away from the influence of Wagner, felt at its strongest in the preceding symphony. The work is scored for the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, harp and strings, with triangle, cymbals and bass drum added in the third movement.
The symphony opens impressively, a signal call appearing above the strings from clarinets and bassoons. Structurally the first movement is unusual in its abbreviated recapitulation to which a further development of earlier thematic material is added. The slow movement is introduced solemnly by clarinets and bassoons, with horns and trombones, in music that recalls Wagner and seems at moments in the following variations about to turn into something well enough known by that composer, to be saved at the last minute by some characteristically Bohemian turn of phrase. The mood is shattered by the opening of the scherzo, thematically Bohemian, even if the trio brings memories of Wagner. The last movement is based on its brief opening theme, to be heard all too often as the movement proceeds to its necessary D major conclusion.
In 1884 Dvořák bought a small property at Vysoka and it was there that in the autumn of 1889 he w rote his Eighth Symphony, celebrating in the superscription to the score his admission as a member of the Emperor Franz Josef's Czech Academy of Science, Literature and the Arts. The first performance was in Prague in February 1890, followed by a performance in London under the composer's direction in April and in June in Cambridge, where he received an honorary doctorate. The symphony was published in London by Novello, strong supporters of Dvořák, whose Vienna publisher Simrock had proved keener to buy shorter pieces, for which there was always a ready market. A performance under Richter in Vienna had to wait until January 1891.
The symphony, scored for an orchestra that includes piccolo, cor anglais and tuba, in addition to the pairs of other woodwind instruments, four horns, trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani and strings, is imbued with the spirit of Bohemia. The first movement opens with a fine G minor theme, scored for cellos, clarinets, bassoon and horn, followed by a cheerful interruption from the flute and a rhythmic additional theme played by divided violas and cellos. There is throughout the movement a mood that changes from major to minor, the former eventually predominating in a cheerful closing section.
The slow movement brings a similar ambivalence, the three fiats of the opening key signature apparently an afterthought for music which is now in E fiat major, before reaching C minor, contradicted by the woodwind. The key signature is replaced before long by a happy C major melody for flute and oboe. The third movement is in the form of a graceful G minor waltz, with a contrasting G major trio section from Dvořák's opera The Stubborn Lovers. The trumpets introduce the finale, their strong opening bars followed by a gently lilting cello theme, the subject of a series of variations, interrupted by a sinister soldiery. There is are turn to the lyrical principal theme of the movement before the excitement of the closing section, as the orchestra is urged on by the French horns at their brassiest.
ReviewsThe orchestra is the Slovak Philharmonic, who really have this music in their blood, conducted in lively and idiomatic fashion by Stephen Gunzenhauser who has a most engaging way with DvorÃ¡k's music. - Guardian, August 1990