Dvořák: Symphony No. 7

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

  1. Allegro maestoso
  2. Poco adagio
  3. Scherzo: Vivace – Poco meno mosso
  4. Finale: Allegro

Duration: 35'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013, 1999

Older readers may just be able to recall a time when there were London evening newspapers other than the Evening Standard. Unless there are any Methuselahs present tonight, however, it is unlikely any would remember the Pall Mall Gazette. The Gazette was founded in 1865, and became successful enough that it absorbed a lesser paper, the Globe, in 1921 before being itself merged with a rival in 1923 - ironically enough, the Standard.  It took its name from the fictional newspaper in Thackeray’s The History of Pendennis, and over its lifetime printed the work of many notable writers. In turn it became referenced itself in fiction, appearing in Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and The Time Machine.

One scoop the newspaper secured in 1886 was an interview with Antonín Dvořák, who was in England for the first performance of his oratorio St. Ludmilla. In it Dvořák talked of his upbringing and his approach to composition. Asked by the (anonymous) interviewer what he thought of the English, then widely considered to be an utterly unmusical species, Dvořák replied, “So far as my experience of English audiences goes I can only say that people who had not a good deal of love for music in them would hardly sit for four hours closely following an oratorio from beginning to end, and evidently enjoy doing it. As to their being good musicians, I judge them by the orchestras who have played my compositions under my own direction, and it has struck me every time. With regard to music it is with the English as it is with the Slavs in politics--they are young, very young, but there is great hope for the future.”

Perhaps here Dvořák had found a reason for the extraordinary enthusiasm for his music in England.   Since his Stabat Mater had been performed there in 1883 there had been an explosion of enthusiasm for his music. Following the similarly sudden success of his Slavonic Dances in 1878, this firmly established Dvořák as an international figure.

The road to this success had been a long one.  As he related in his interview with the Gazette, Dvořák came from humble beginning: his father was a butcher and innkeeper (“which two occupations generally go together with us in Bohemia”). When he was 10 he was sent to the village of Zlonice to be educated at a German-speaking school, as was the custom for Czechs in the Austrian Empire. At the same time he began to teach himself the violin.  In Zlonice he was given rudimentary music lessons, enough to enable him to play his fiddle with street musicians when he returned home for the holidays.  His parents were supportive of his musical ambitions, and despite their poverty managed to arrange for him to attend the Organ School in Prague. When he finished his studies in 1859, Dvořák began a decade of graft as a musician in dance bands and pit orchestras in Prague.

By 1874 Dvořák was married and settled in the post of organist at the church of St Vojtěch.  He applied for the Austrian State Stipendum, a grant given to artists.  He was awarded grants for four years running, but more importantly made the acquaintance of Johannes Brahms, who was one of the judges. Brahms wrote to the publisher Simrock recommending Dvořák as a publishing prospect. With the approval of Brahms (who soon became a close friend) and the imprint of Simrock behind him, Dvořák’s stock rocketed, and in 1884 the butcher’s son was on his way to England.  He was made an honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society, which also commissioned him to write a new symphony, his seventh.

His seventh to be composed, perhaps, but it was not known as such during his lifetime.  Although four of his previous six symphonies had been performed, Simrock had published only one, the sixth, as “Symphony No.1” .  When he took the new symphony on, therefore, Simrock numbered it as Dvořák’s Second (and subsequently issued the fifth as “No. 3”). Simrock nearly did not publish the symphony at all, after he and Dvořák fell out over the difference between the fee Simrock was prepared to pay and the fee Dvořák felt he was due. The dispute was eventually resolved in Dvořák’s favour, but the issue flared up again a few years later, which would lead to his next symphony being published by the English firm of Novello & Co.

The Seventh (as we may now definitively refer to it) is a self-consciously epic work by a composer highly aware of his position as both an internationally renowned composer and a representative of his people’s nascent national identity.  From its brooding opening though its lyrical and fiery middle movements  to its noble yet tragic conclusion it reflects the time of its creation, and the struggles of the Czech people to establish a voice and a nation for themselves. Yet it also looks wider: Dvořák takes many cues from Brahms, whose third symphony had recently been unveiled, and which influence can be heard particularly strongly in the second movement.   The note he scribbled on the sketch for this movement, “From the sad years”, refers to the Czech longing for independence, but also to more personal concerns.  The recent death of his mother was still at the front of his mind, but this must also have brought back memories of the previous decade, hen in the pace of two years his three eldest children all died in infancy.  Perhaps this sharp demonstration of the fragility of life spurred Dvořák to play his part in the rebirth of his nation. “Twenty years ago we Slavs were nothing,” he told the Gazette. “Now we feel our national life once more awakening, and who knows but that the glorious times may come back which five centuries ago were ours, when all Europe looked up to the powerful Czechs, the Slavs, the Bohemians, to whom I, too, belong, and to whom I am proud to belong.”

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