Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, op. 70

            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—think 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.  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 unmistakable 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 similar genres of string quartets, sonatas, and symphonies.  But unlike Brahms, he wrote tone poems and was an active and successful opera composer, although only his Rusalka is widely known in this country.

            Dvořák wrote nine symphonies, but American audiences are most familiar with Symphonies No. 8 in G Major and No. 9 in E Minor “From the New World.”   Confusion is further generated by the fact that his first four symphonies were not published in his lifetime, nor were they generally recognized until the 1950s!  So, tonight’s symphony is known by an older generation as No. 2, and today as No. 7.  In any case, notwithstanding the remarkable quality and reputation of the two familiar ones alluded to above, many critics place the laurels on No. 7 as perhaps Dvořák’s best effort in the genre.  It should be an eye-opener in the best possible way. 

            In 1883 Dvořák was invited to visit London by the Philharmonic Society to conduct his works, and beginning in 1884 he initiated a series of visits that over the years brought him great success and made him the “toast of the town.”   This was especially gratifying, considering that at this time political, read Germanic, antipathy to his “Czechness” was hindering significantly the reception of his works on the continent.  His Symphony No. 6 was enthusiastically received in England and a commission was given for a seventh.   It was finished in March of 1885 and given its première in London the next month.  While it was a rousing success, Dvořák was offered for it only one half of what he usually received from his publisher, and one fifth of what Brahms was given for a symphony.   In the end, the composer was vindicated by the work’s reception in history.   Building upon the new and more rigorous adherence to classical tradition incorporated into his sixth symphony, as well a degree of abstractness that avoided folk elements, Symphony No. 7 is a most serious, even muscular, work.  Its economy of means and rigorous development of ideas do justice to like approaches in the music of Beethoven and Brahms. There’s not an ounce of fat in it, and it is almost unremittingly reflective, with tragic moments not uncommon.  It was written shortly after the death of his mother—his eldest daughter had died earlier--and he openly acknowledged that with the comment on the manuscript:  “from the sad years.”  This mood is only interrupted in the fast scherzo movement where the dynamic cross rhythms of the native Czech dance, the furiant—familiar from the composer’s Slavonic Dances--liven things up considerably.  This work is said to have been inspired by Brahms’ third symphony, and it is pellucidly clear that Brahms should have been honored by the subsequent masterpiece.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan