Dvorák (1841-1904) - Symphony No 7
Dvorák was something of a “mixed-up kid”: son of the village butcher
at Nelahozeves, in Bohemia, Antonin left school at 11 to learn the
trade. Showing promise as a violinist, off he was sent to an uncle in Zlonice
- to learn German! While there, he took in viola, organ, piano and counterpoint
(but not harmony and such like). Having gained a place at the Prague Organ
School, he graduated to become not an organist but a violist, in
a band which became the core of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra
(est. 1862), often conducted by Smetana.
own music began to attract attention, he left the orchestra to concentrate
on composition, supporting himself in time-honoured fashion by working
as a church organist and purveying private tuition. His income was
bolstered by Ministry of Education stipends in 1875 and 1877 (some sources
quote “Austrian National Prizes, 1874 and 1876”). A further application
in 1888 brought interest from Hanslick and Brahms, who commended him to
the publisher Simrock. He quickly achieved prominence, attracting such
as Joachim, Richter and Bülow, and made several visits to England.
Following his success there in March 1884, the London Philharmonic
Society commissioned the Seventh Symphony, which was written between
December 1884 and March 1885.
some, Dvorák was not diminished by his influences: rather he absorbed
and was nourished by them. Having subsumed an early Wagnerian influence,
the Smetana experience encouraged him to imbibe his native folk-culture.
Admirably complementing his Schubertian talent for melody and pastoralism,
the vital, attractive Czech folk idioms were brilliantly integrated
with classical form and counterpoint. The Seventh's suddenly sharper
focus on form and polyphony was surely a direct result of his recent encounter
with Brahms' Third (premièred in December 1883).
import of the music is much less cut-and-dried. The sleeve notes of my
recordings differ. One finds the finale trumphantly resolving the first
movement's uncertainties, another fmds it “apparently (sic) replete
with foreboding”, but ultimately triumphant, while the third omits any
mention of “triumph”. Dvorák sub-titled it “From Sad Years”, and
consequently it is sometimes dubbed “The Tragic”. In fact, it was composed
in the shadow of the death of his beloved mother, in a period he described
as “of doubt and obstinacy, silent sorrow and resignation”. This
must be the clue we need: I would even venture that the entire symphony
reflects his deeply-felt bereavement. Personally, I have never felt the
slightest “triumph” in this symphony: the finale's “vital, attractive Czech
folk idioms” come across more as woodland animals, caged and desperate
Allegro maestoso: Creeping in under cover of darkness the first subject
[A], a rolling theme with an ambiguous twist in its tail, quickly sprouts
offshoots. A brutal climax subsides for the oscillating second subject
[B]. Entering on clarinets, its dancing is undermined by vague disturbances.
In the development these break cover, edging in through [A] on bass strings,
and soon engaging [B] in a grim struggle. [B] is like sanity, threatened
by powers of darkness represented by [A]. At the battle's height, horns
hammering madly, a foreshortened recapitulation slams in and blends into
the coda. One last crisis seems to expire. [A] appears in its original
form, twists downwards, and drags the movement into despondency.
Poco adagio: This heartfelt and lovely lament is hard to pin down formally
- one commentator refers simply to “strong internal logic”. However,
you won't go far wrong regarding it as an exposition of three themes
with a development and recapitulation. The first theme, on woodwind,
starts like some religious chant, which through yearning, rising phrases
becomes a sorrowful song. The second grows from strings searching tentatively.
The third, entering on glowing horns, contains a “Wagner turn” and precipitates
a heavy climax, laden with regret. Clarinets open the development,
trying to provoke a dance, but this turns into a passionate, strings-led
outpouring. The recapitulation begins with rich-toned 'cellos singing
the first theme, from which the second builds a climax almost Brucknerian
in tone. As the horns longingly recall the third theme, an oboe muses on
the first, the music moving with infinite tenderness to its close.
Scherzo: Vivace - Poco meno mosso: The first and only carefree music
of the symphony trips in to the rhythm of the furiant, its
skeletal outline varied by counter-themes during the course of two
pairs of two “entries” apiece. Each pair ends with a chattering codetta,
the first a brief link, the second more effusive. The classically
symmetrical (ABCBA) trio section finds woodwinds imitating woodbirds
in counterpoint to a yearning theme on strings [A], echoing hunting calls
[B], and a sprightly, whirring dance [C]. A crescendo links back to the
furiant rhythm and a return of one pair of entries. The music quietens,
and wistful 'cellos recall the slow movement's horn theme, a poignant
pang preceding the dazzling conclusion.
Finale: Allegro: Like a retribution for the third movement's pleasure,
a huge cry of anguish is whipped into torment: basses growl, the
whole orchestra snarls, launching a dogged march. Like a breath of
cooling air, the second subject arrives on lilting 'cellos, but this comparative
joy is soon beset by anger. The development starts quietly, but in disquiet,
a sinister first subject stalking evilly: the music erupts into a protracted
polyphonic fury from which the second subject's dancing brings little
respite, and itself becomes hysterical. A lull soon crumbles: drums
pound, woodwind bite, and the recapitulation breaks the momentum. The second
subject is consumed by the storm. At the coda's height, the opening cry's
first note swings aloft, the full weight of its descent forcing a
broad statement of the first subject to a conclusion which blazes,
not with triumph but with grief.
Symphony stands apart from the rest of Dvorák's works, a stark
reminder that darkness borders even the sunniest existence. I wonder, has
any other music ever transmuted amiable folk idioms, Czech or otherwise,
into such bitter outrage? It is a truly amazing piece, and to think that
he could have been a butcher if he'd wanted!
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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