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Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904) – Symphony No. 8
Antonín Dvorák was something of a “mixed-up kid”. The son of the village butcher at Nelahozeves, in Bohemia, Antonín left school at 11 to learn the trade. However, 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, apparently, not harmony and such like. Eventually, he entered the Prague Organ School, graduating not as an organist but a violist.
Around this time, he “straightened himself out”. He joined a band that became the core of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra (est. 1862), which was often conducted by Smetana. When his own music began to attract attention, Dvorák 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 the attention of such as Joachim, Richter and Bülow, and making several visits to England.
Far from being diminished by his influences, Dvorák absorbed and took nourishment from them. Having subsumed an early Wagnerian influence, the Smetana experience fired him with a passion for his native folk-culture. Dvorák brilliantly integrated the vital, attractive Czech folk-idioms – which admirably complemented his Schubertian talent for melody and pastoralism – with classical form and counterpoint.
This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Eighth Symphony of 1889. This carefree composition finds him free of the dark demeanour of the preceding Seventh (1884-5), which 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”. Equally, since he hadn’t yet crossed the Big Pond, the Eighth was unaffected by the emotional ambivalence of the Ninth (1893), in which the excitement of new and vibrant cultures collided with a nagging, dispiriting homesickness.
The Eighth was for a time known as the “English”, for no better reason than its publication by Novello following a falling-out with Simrock – other than that, it’s about as “English” as its third movement’s dumkas.
1. Allegro con brio: The introductory theme’s solemn chorale is like a dawn mist, soon dispelled by a dew-fresh flute announcing the sunny first subject. A contented sighing of strings ushers in a second subject that matches the first in both vitality and generosity of ideas. Twice the introductory theme returns, firstly to launch a development section positively stuffed with characteristic energy, and secondly (in climactic convenience) to signal the start of a reprise that, in its desire to get to the second subject, nearly forgets about the first!
2. Adagio: Almost dreaming, the movement muses on thematic fragments for fully three minutes before a daintily stepping rhythm establishes a sense of direction. Woodwind, succeeded by a tender solo violin, sing the lyric in full flow, coaxing a passionate climax of chorale-like brass punctuated by tympani. From the ensuing peace, the entire pattern is repeated, though the scenery changes considerably – doleful horns momentarily threaten a storm, but succeed only in making the recapitulation of the theme glow more richly, while the sunset is serenity itself.
3. Allegretto grazioso - molto vivace: Elegantly combining dance and design, Dvorák “floats” this charming dumkas through subtlety of scoring and avoidance of those boring old “regular eight-bar phrases”. The tunes follow a “verse and refrain” pattern: in the outer sections, a lilting “verse” alternates with a haunting, descending “refrain”, while in the middle a swaying tune is coupled with an elaboration of itself. The tempo picks up smartly for a sprightly coda based on the central theme, and an unexpectedly quiet ending.
4. Allegro, ma non troppo: Bright trumpets march cheerfully in, pre-echoing the stately subject (which soon appears on the cellos) and heralding a procession of artful variations. First the theme becomes sturdier, then races off, fast and punchy, with the horns having a field-day. The mood becomes a bit bucolic as a stomping rhythm takes over, from whence the festivities enter a distinctly Brahmsian “developmental” mode.
All this hustle and bustle is complemented by an extended lyrical sequence, fading gently, lingering lovingly over the theme. Party animals, however, are no respecters of peace and quiet: in bounces the coda, expanding on the “fast and punchy” episode to round off this happy symphony with a festive flourish – though perhaps I’d better spare you any awful puns about “bouncing Czechs”!
© Paul Serotsky 2000, 2010

© Paul Serotsky
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