Dvořák: Symphony No.6

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No.6 in D major, op.60

1. Allegro non tanto
2. Adagio
3. Scherzo: Furiant: Presto
4. Finale: Allegro con spirito

If Smetana effectively created the Czech musical character, it was Dvořák who took it to the world. By the end of the 1870s he was, thanks to the patronage of Brahms, establishing himself internationally as a composer, and in 1879 he achieved the distinction of having his third Slavonic Rhapsody performed by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Richter. The performance was a great success, and as a result Dvořák found himself in the position of promising his next symphony to the orchestra. So in 1880 he set to work, completing the new work by October for a projected performance in December.

The orchestra, however, had other ideas: rumbles of discontent were heard at the prospect of playing new Czech music two years in a row; to present overtly Czech music in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which Bohemia was a subject, was potentially an unwise political act. In the end the first performance of the symphony was given in March 1881 by the Prague Philharmonic under Adolf Čech. Richter himself finally conducted the symphony of which he was the dedicatee in London the following year.

Ironically, the work that the Viennese musicians had objected to on the grounds of its ethnicity has a distinctly Germanic tang to it; Dvořák went out of his way to write something that related to the traditions of musical Vienna. Not least of these is a clear indebtedness to his mentor Brahms, and in particular his second symphony (also in D major), which was then still a recent work. Dvořák also peppers the score with reference to Beethoven's symphonies, which were highly regarded in Vienna (not necessarily the case when that composer was alive), in what seems a ploy to present himself as an heir to those traditions.

That notwithstanding, this symphony, the first of his to be published (which is why for many years it was known as his first), sees Dvořák's style fully formed, the thick scoring of his earlier symphonies now replaced by the colourful, translucent sound that characterises his mature output. The first movement's allusions to the musical world of Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert only serve to highlight the confidence Dvořák has in his own voice, which is never swamped by his illustrious forbears.

The second movement takes for its principal theme a tune from an early string quartet that dates back to 1862, around the same time as the youthful Dvořák composed his first symphony, The Bells of Zlonice. As is his way, the movement proceeds less through contrasts than ruminations on and tangents to the main theme in a thoroughly relaxed and generous manner which finds time to make reference to the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Having doffed his cap to Vienna, the third movement is entirely and unashamedly Czech in character, taking the form of a furiant, a dance notable for its forceful cross-rhythms, that takes the folk ideas he had thoroughly explored in such works as the Slavonic Dances and propels them into an entirely new plane of thought. The opening of the finale that follows evokes the equivalent movement of Brahms' second, before launching off on its own expansive course, finally culminating in an outrageously lively dash for the finish.

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