Symphony No. 6 in D major, op. 60, B. 112

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            Dvořák is the preëminent Czech composer of the nineteenth century, and perhaps of all of his successors, as well.   This is no small achievement, considering the number of great musicians--Mozart, for example—who thought of Bohemia as the most musical country in Europe.  Even today, one can hardly get on a streetcar in Prague without stepping around a double bass. Americans today, if they think of Czech music at all, other than two works by Smetana, it is of the music of Dvořák. They know little of the other composers of the incredible musical wealth of Bohemia—including Fibich, Ostrčil, Janáček, Foerster, Hába, and Martinů—just to name a few.  Dvořák is merely “first among equals” in the history of Czech music, and many more of the compositions of “the conservatory of Europe” need to reach our own concert stages.

            Dvořák owed his initial recognition to Johannes Brahms, who encountered his music somewhat early in Dvořák’s career, and saw to it that he was enabled to spend time in Vienna for further study.  While Dvořák’s fundamental stylistic orientation is similar to the older composer in its classical restraint and dedication to traditional forms and procedures, his compositions are unmistakably Czech in myriad subtle ways.  Turns of harmony, melody, and rhythm firmly establish Dvořák’s culture, even within the disciplined tradition of musical composition leading back to, say, Beethoven.  Like Brahms, Dvořák wrote stunningly well in the genres of string quartets, sonatas, and symphonies.  But unlike Brahms, he also wrote tone poems, and was an active and successful opera composer, although only his Rusalka is widely known in this country.  He was interested in almost every genre, and few of his contemporaries composed successfully in as many different ones as did Dvořák.

            He clearly thought of himself as a champion of Czech music, and he incorporated significant Czech musical, literary, and historical elements into his works.   His Slavonic Rhapsodies, tone poems, operas, and songs—the list goes on and on—all are heavily infused with Czech melodies, linguistic inflections and characteristic rhythms, and national legends and stories.   And it must be admitted that these essential elements of his artistic voice are near the core of his attractiveness to audiences worldwide—not just in his homeland. Yet, to focus inordinately on these elements would miss the mark in understanding the most important aspect of the nature of his music. As deeply rooted as he is in the Czech musical tradition, it would be a mistake to consign him primarily to the category of “nationalist” composers.  For Dvořák was a clear adherent of the artistic thinking of those composers of the nineteenth century who were firmly rooted in the tradition of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven (and later, Mendelssohn and Brahms) as a fundamental way of composing.  That is, they favored classical forms and designs, integrated development of musical ideas, and in general, a restrained and balanced expression that placed strong emphasis on music as an abstract art.  Generally speaking not for them were the “stories” and programs of folks like Liszt and Wagner, and their followers.   And in mastery of the resilience of this style, the symphonies of Dvořák--as well as those of Tchaikovsky and Brahms--pretty much have come to dominate the symphonic music from those times that are favored today by concert audiences.

            Dvořák wrote nine symphonies, but Americans are most familiar with Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World.”   His first four symphonies were not published in his lifetime, nor were they generally recognized until the 1950s. The seventh, and eighth symphonies have become standard repertoire, and are beginning to catch up in popularity in this country with the beloved ninth.  But, it was the sixth that first brought him international recognition and acclaim as a symphonist.  It dates from the time that, while widely recognized and successful in his native land, he was nevertheless struggling to find strong acceptance in the center of music of the time: Vienna.  That city, of course, was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Czechs had been vassals of the Austrians since 1620.  Czech culture had been completely dominated by the Austrians during those three centuries, and while the Czechs were an important part of the musical life of the Empire, they were more or less still regarded as Slavic “rubes” to the snobbish Viennese.

            At the time, Johannes Brahms was the center of the Viennese musical world, and his recognition of Dvořák’s talent, and subsequent support of Dvořák for state financial subsidies, was central to the younger composer’s rising success. In 1879 the distinguished conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, Hans Richter, had programmed Dvořák’s Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3 to great acclaim, and subsequently requested a new symphony from him. Dvořák’s musical style and reputation thitherto had ridden to a significant degree on his Bohemian nationalism and use of Czech folk elements.  But, now he sought to turn to a more universal, classical, style that would be seen as in the esteemed line of Viennese immortals:  Mozart, Beethoven, and, of course, Brahms.   The mavens of Viennese music lovers demanded this, and so, in his sixth symphony, Dvořák set out to create one in this requisite style. Work commenced in late summer of the next year, and in several weeks it was completed.  The score was sent to Richter, and the composer awaited a date for the première in Vienna.  It was not to come.  The anti-Czech feelings in the orchestra during the rehearsals for the Slavonic Rhapsody now bubbled to the surface, and Richter had to keep postponing the première, caught in Austrian politics.  So, the work was performed for the first time the next year, 1881, in Prague.

            It is a commonplace that his genial, warm, optimistic, and tuneful symphony is regarded as modeled in significant ways on Brahms’ recently composed (1877) second symphony.  Key, mood, melodic character, and structure—all bear similarities to Brahms great symphony.   But, of course, it doesn’t matter at all.  If he “borrowed” certain ideas from his champion, Brahms, then—as J. S. Bach is famously quoted—he more than “paid him back with interest.”

            A simple little two-note ascending motive opens the work, and becomes an essential building block for the movement.  It’s in the best classical tradition, which Dvořák is now cultivating.   This unity of approach follows in the succession of ideas that make up the rest of the movement.   And yet, the distinctive harmonies; the clear, colorful orchestration; and the ubiquitous parallelism in the melodies—all are familiar elements that go to make up the unmistakable, genial Bohemian style of the composer.  Notwithstanding its energy and decisive character, this is a warm and happy affair that somehow or other elicits the “pastoral” character that defies precise definition.

            The beginning of the second movement—as well as later passages--is often cited by musical pundits as evoking the Adagio of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.  That is a matter of perception, of course, but it seems somewhat apt.  Nevertheless, the overall character is equally Czech, and evocative of the peaceful, sylvan beauties of the Bohemian countryside.  That observation is equally subjective, too.  But, various little stylistic traits point to other compositions of the composer with that reference exactly in mind.  Its serenities are familiar from all of Dvořák’s oeuvre, with a healthy dose of Brahms, as well.

            Dvořák’s somewhat new, “classical” style runs aground somewhat in the third movement.  For it is a furiant, a traditional, exciting Bohemian dance that simply screams Czech ethnic musical traditions.  It’s in 3/4 time, but with frequent shifts to a pair of 2/4 measures.  Just as every schoolchild knows, six may be factored into two threes or three twos, and that juxtaposition is the basis of the furiant.  So you’ll hear the rapid beats often proceeding thusly: one-two-three, one-two, one-two.  Excited and stimulating it is, but unfortunately, this very Czech dance is probably the main basis for the initial Viennese intellectual disdain for the symphony.  The contrasting middle section is a delicate, slower affair, again featuring “pastoral” woodwinds, but, soon the sparkling furiant returns to cap it all off.  At the première this movement was so well received, that the audience demanded and got an encore.  It’s easy to see why.

            The murmuring strings that open the last movement remind us again of the parallel point in Brahms’ second symphony. They soon yield to little motives and a tune here and there--all of which gives the composer ample material to create this model of the best of Viennese tight musical development and structural integrity.  It’s a cogent example of the mature work of the composer that lay ahead:  memorable tunes, economy of means, colorful orchestration, and lucid musical structure.   All of this, along with a masterful sense of drama and cohesive direction. A marvelous, scintillating coda sails into the peroration, with the main theme soaring above it all. 

            There’s no wonder that this work brought Dvořák the recognition that he so clearly deserved.  It is the perfect combination of mainstream Viennese classicism and rich, Bohemian musical nationalism.  Clearly deserving to take its place with his last three symphonies, it reminds us in this country that there is so much more to appreciate than the few works of Dvořák that we focus on.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan