ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
SYMPHONY No.8 in G, Op.88
Premiered: Prague (now in the Czech Republic), 1890
- 1. Allegro con brio
- 2. Adagio
- 3. Allegretto grazioso – Molto vivace
- 4. Allegro ma non troppo
Written and orchestrated in an astonishing ten weeks, Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony was a determined effort to get away from the gloomy, stormy world of the Seventh, even at the risk of sounding downright cheerful in places. This was not usually the Dvořák way. Indeed, the surviving sketches for the first movement are almost entirely in the cheerful major; the composer appears to have found it not nearly miserable enough – hence the excursions into the minor in the final version. However, Dvořák’s publisher was downright disappointed with all this uncommercial good humor, and paid Dvořák so little for it that the composer was driven into a teaching job at the Prague Conservatory. He and the publisher never spoke again.
After a typically solemn Dvořák opening, all hymnal chords and solemn brass, the flute flutters in with one of many birdsong-like themes that will hover over the work, and we are off into the Bohemian countryside, which Dvořák was determined would be at least musically free of rural Germans (Beethoven in particular). Not even the thunderstorm of the Adagio can disturb the overall serenity of the music, which is so settled that we don’t even wonder why we’re in E flat, a key unrelated to the symphony’s main key. Unless, of course, we’re hearing a few folk tunes in Slavic modes.
For the third movement, Beethoven’s bucolic stomping is replaced by a solid Slavic dumka, oscillating between sad and (sort of) happy, while in the central section we hear simultaneous dark/bright versions of a semi-folksong that has defied identification. The word dumka actually means “thought” – in Dvořák’s hands, a quintessentially Czech thought.
At the Czech equivalent of a hoe-down, revelers are summoned to dance by a fanfare, and so it is in the finale. At first, the solemn main subject looks like it will be churned through an entire sequence of Brahmsian variations, but Dvořák will have none of it; a stomping country dance leads to a final lyrical glimpse of the Bohemian summer before we are treated to a final dose of bucolic bounce. After all those years of playing third viola under Smetana, Dvořák finally showed the older master how to combine national pride with musical solidity
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