Symphony Study No. 29 of 118: Dvořák Symphony No. 6

by Glenn on February 3, 2016

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Symphony No. 6 in D major, Opus 60
First Performance: 25 March 1881 | Prague Philharmonic

It’s hard to see process in music history, in particular, how a piece of music becomes part of the “accepted canon of Western symphonic music” (whatever that means) or at least how it finds its way onto the program of a professional symphony orchestra. What we see is a particular work on a program and assume that at some point it became understood that it was good enough (or financially advantageous enough?) to be programmed. What we don’t see is that this acceptance process can be messy.

A week ago Saturday night we got to hear Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 as performed by the Oregon Symphony under the direction of guest conductor Tomáš Netopil. It was both an enjoyable and a well-received concert (which also included Artur Honegger’s Rugby and Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerton No. 1). It’s such a delight to be among an appreciative and enthusiastic audience that—horror of horrors—sometimes clapped between movements. The Dvořák was the highlight for me.

Guest Maestro Netopil addresses the crowd here at "The Schnitz" (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon). With Mrs. Nancy Austin listening to the Oregon Symphony. Thanks to Nancy's college roommate for sharing her tickets when she had be out of town. Excited to hear Dvorak's Sixth Symphony here in a few moments.

A photo posted by Glenn Austin (@glenneaustin) on

I didn’t fall in love with the work, but I really liked it and have happily heard it again on a recording by Libor Pešek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

One of the ways to think about a symphony is in terms of its distance from Beethoven. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 was first performed 54 years after the death of Beethoven, but distance to Beethoven is not primarily a consideration of years, but of style. This symphony feels very close to the music of Beethoven. Michael Steinberg in The Symphony says as much:

“Restudying this symphony, I get the strong sense of Dvořák’s ambition … to write a Beethoven symphony.”

Three of the four movements are quite energetic: the first movement is in sonata style; the third is a scherzo; the last is a joyful celebration—wild and fun, a crowd-pleaser. The slow movement has a little melancholy to it, which is a nice counterpoint  to an otherwise upbeat work.

Along with the connection to Beethoven, this music has a decidedly Bohemian flavor to it. I find it charming. For most 21st century ears, though, I can imagine that the music sounds like any other piece of classical music and we take it for granted that it can and should be performed on a program of classical music.

While there was nothing startling about the fact that this symphony was performed two weeks ago, when Dvořák originally presented this work to the conductor Hans Richter (to whom the work is dedicated) it was to be performed by the Vienna Philharmonic. But as Steinberg relates, some elements of the Philharmonic were “anti-Czech” and it would be two years after the work’s first performance by the Prague Philharmonic before the Vienna Philharmonic would come around and present the work.

For a work to be programmed it requires both a champion and acceptance. And I suppose that remains true today. I wonder if there is a dissertation in there somewhere?: “The Evolving Canon of Western Symphonic Music As Based on Performance.” I’d want to talk to an economics/statistics person, but it seems like you could take the performance lists of long-operating symphony orchestras and attach moving averages to the performances of the various compositions. The first problem I see with this topic is that it feels more like data collection than academic thought. But it would be interesting, I think. I’m certain we would discover some obvious things, that Elgar is big in England, for example. But how nationalistic or provincial is the symphonic enterprise these days?

The third movement of Dvořák’s Sixth was my favorite. It felt like it could have been borrowed from his Slavonic Dances which, with his “New World” Symphony, have been my primary exposure to Dvořák. I love the play of the duple vs triple meters. I would have enjoyed hearing it in performance a day or two later. The tympani part in particular is extraordinarily syncopated and I wondered if the whole thing would feel more tightly connected a performance or two later.

My last thought ventures farther into criticism, but not of the music or the orchestra. Perhaps it’s better expressed as a wish: I would love to hear the Oregon Symphony play somewhere else to see how my ideas about their sound would change. I feel like the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is unfriendly to the mid and bottom end of the string section. My theory is that the room holds the orchestra back from sounding more present throughout the dynamic range. It’s like we are hearing the orchestra through bookshelf speakers.

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[…] Antonin Dvořák in his Sixth Symphony was trying to write a Beethoven symphony (see post), at first listen it would appear that Charles Ives in his Fourth Symphony was most decidedly not. […]

by Symphony Study No. 30 of 118: Charles Ives | Symphony No. 4 « on 7 February 2016 at 9:20 am. #