Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88, B. 163

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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 ethnicity, 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--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.   But, his sixth, seventh, and eighth symphonies are beginning to catch up in popularity in this country with the beloved ninth.  It was the sixth (1880) that first brought him international recognition and acclaim as a symphonist; but it is the eighth that has come to take a place of “second to none,” in popularity.  It’s a work of genial warmth, and suffused throughout with the color and melodious qualities so associated with Dvořák.

            The first movement opens with a wonderfully melancholy theme in G minor played by the cello section; it’s not the main theme, however, but little matter. Dvořák full well knows it value, and it marks off each of the three main sections of the movement.  The end of it concludes with an ingratiating move to G major, carried by warm brasses.  The main theme is now here, and it’s a little “chirpy” birdlike theme, first heard in the flute.  By and by other important material comes to fore, but not in the traditional key for these later ideas, but in the increasingly popular key with the romantic composers, two steps higher.  It too, is in a minor key, and you’ll hear it first in the woodwinds. Dvořák brings in a few other concluding ideas, and then the melancholy theme from the opening announces the development, which, though appropriately stormy and fragmented, as these things tend to be, always bears the clarity and tunefulness typical of the composer.  Powerful trumpets and trombones again intone the opening idea to mark the recap, followed shortly by the main theme.  We heard it first in the flute, but this time it’s played by the English horn, making its only appearance in the symphony.  The second theme gets a good going over as this shortened reprise burns to an uplifting conclusion.

            The second movement is most easily heard as an ingratiating series of variegated moods, musical ideas, and instrumental color.   It’s usually foolish to read too much into abstract music, but there is no doubt here, of the evocation of “Czech” local color in the beautiful episodes that seem to explore the rural life, stunning natural beauty, and the indigenous musical life of Dvořák’s homeland.

            Dances are what we expect usually in third movements, and Dvořák provides two:  a pensive, melancholic waltz, playing bookends for a warm folkdance in the middle, in the same waltz time.  After the return of the first waltz, a short, cheerful coda built around the second tune, but now in duple, not waltz time, takes us gently to the end.

            There’s no mistaking the beginning of the last movement—a brilliant fanfare in the trumpets leads to the theme.  First heard in the cellos, it is a broad, sonorous melody derived from the theme that we heard way back in the first movement in the flute.  It’s based upon the three notes of the G major triad, and Dvořák shows us the master he is, by wringing every possible use out of it.  The movement is a series of marvelously creative variations on this simple theme.  After the leisurely announcement by the cello section, and further restatements in the strings .  .  . Bam! The tempo takes off in a fury, driven by hysterical trills in the horns, followed by virtuoso filigree in the solo flute.  Soon the next variation appears, a rather heavy marching affair that sounds vaguely like Janissary music (eighteenth-century Turkish effects found in Mozart, Beethoven, and others).  After some allusions to the opening fanfare, the strings revert back to the peaceful statement of the main theme, enhanced by a little Rossinian flute obbligato, and the mood continues—teasing us by building up the “calm before the storm” that everyone in the house knows is going to burst out at any moment.   On and on the teasing goes, softer and softer—then:  the hysterical horn trills burst in, and we’re off to the races, faster and faster, and an apotheosis of Czech dancing fury that has few equals in the literature.  It’s easy to see why this great symphony—from the “Old World,” as it were--is the favorite Dvořák symphony of many.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan