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Dvorák (1841-1904) - Symphony No 7

Antonin 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. 

When his 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. 

Unlike 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). 

The emotional 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 for freedom. 

1. 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. 

2. 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. 

3. 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. 

4. 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. 

The Seventh 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
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