Symphony Study No. 50 | Dvořák: No. 7 in d minor

by Glenn on July 28, 2016

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Symphony No. 7 in d minor

i.Allegro maestoso
ii. Poco adagio
iii. Scherzo: Vivace—Poco meno mosso
iv. Allegro

First Performance: 22 April 1885 | Royal Philharmonic Society | Conducted by the Composer

Recording: Rafael Kubelik | Vienna Philharmonic | October 1956

One of the blessings of my working life is that I am in a largely music-free environment. A co-worker has music playing at his desk, but it’s so quiet that I hardly notice it across the room or when various machines are running. In American retail life, we tend to eschew quiet. I suppose I would play music throughout the shop if it didn’t violate a corollary of the Golden Rule—“Don’t play for others what they wouldn’t play for themselves.”

Aside from the local Portland jazz (KMHD) or classical (KQAC) stations I have on when I’m driving and not listening to a recorded book, for me the act of listening to music is, happily, a largely active choice I make rather something that is imposed on me.

The past month has been a little busy with projects and out-of-town work and it’s been difficult to include active listening into an overcrowded  and inconsistent schedule. Two nights ago, it felt good to commit 36’ to another symphony on Michael Steinberg’s list, and one I don’t think I’ve ever heard before.

I chose to listen to Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in d minor (following along with a score) before I read anything about it. You really feel the minor. At the same time it’s not an overwhelmingly dark piece. Soulful, I think, is an apt description. Emotionally, it seems restrained: the high’s aren’t too high and the low’s aren’t too low, although  Steinberg points out that this symphony “could hardly have been more different from its sunshine-and-blue-skies predecessor.”

The first two movements end quietly making the third movement a wonderful, buoyant contrast. That third movement is a charming scherzo in a simple A-B-A format, and is rhythmically fascinating. It’s highly syncopated. I love how Dvořák plays two against three so effectively and will juxtapose a long, smooth melodic line against an accompanying frenetic rhythmic pattern.

There is something both foreign and accessible about Dvořák’s symphonies. He uses sounds that are outside the Germanic tradition that flows from Haydn through Beethoven to Brahms. And yet he uses familiar enough structures (sonata form in the first movement, for example) and harmonies that we can still find our way. It’s like a hike to the top of an unfamiliar mountain. The path we can find though the scenery is completely different.

Dvořák is one of the many composers associated with Steinberg’s list of symphonies that I have neglected most of my life. As a high school senior, I was an aid for the bookkeeping teacher. He knew of my love for Itzhak Perlman, so one day he surprised me with his ticket (I think he was a season ticket holder) to hear him play the Dvořák Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

I don’t remember much in the way of impressions from that evening. I think it was utter joy at seeing the remarkable Mr. Perlman, but being unfamiliar with the concerto, it did not make as easy an impression on me as did the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that introduced me to Mr. Perlman.

As an adult, I can appreciate better that Dvorak’s sound is outside the German orchestral tradition. During his lifetime this meant he wasn’t immediately accepted in the Austro-German orchestral world. In fact, when it came time to publish this symphony, the publisher wanted to frame the symphony as German by changing Dvorak’s first name to Anton.

What I hear today is a heart-warming nationalism. It’s a different nationalism from what we call patriotism in this country, which sometimes has a threatening aspect to it, as in the Toby Keith “we’ll put a boot in your …” variety. Dvořák’s music is a reverence for and celebration of place.

Steinberg writes how his music, beyond the New World Symphony, wasn’t widely heard outside of Czechoslovakia. At some point, his music was introduced to and became accepted in England. A conducting assignment with the Royal Philharmonic Society in London in 1884 was Dvořák’s “first appearance as a conductor outside his own country and the occasion of the most excited welcome he had yet received anywhere.” The conducting went well enough that he was invited back the following year for which he composed and premiered his Seventh Symphony.

Rafael Kubelik

In the liner notes accompanying the CD, Patrick Lambert tells the story of Rafael Kubelik, who conducted the performance I listened to. Kubelik, born in Bohemia on 29 June 1914, was “the sixth child and only son of the celebrated Czech violinist Jan Kubelik.” Jan was an immense influence on his son who would one day say of him, “All my music, all my philosophy came from my father.”

Kubelik’s conducting debut came on 24 January 1914 with the Czech Philharmonic. He wasn’t yet twenty and his graduation piece from the Prague Conservatoire was on the program.

During World War 2 he became the Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. When the Communists took over the country in February 1948, Kubelik made “the painful decision to emigrate.” His explanation: “I just don’t believe that artistic freedom can co-exist with a political dictatorship.” He made a vow not to return until democracy had returned.

42 years later, he went back declaring, “I left my country, but I didn’t leave my nation. My nation was in my heart all the time.”

While he was away from his homeland, he became an ambassador of his nation’s music, “always including as a matter of honour at least one Czech piece when planning his concerts or concert series.” He conducted in Chicago, London, and Vienna, and eventually landed with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he conducted for nearly 25 years.

He retired due to ill-health “(unbearably painful arthritic shoulders),” but came out of retirement after the “Velvet Revolution” came to Czechoslovakia in 1989. He conducted his old orchestra at the opening concert for the Prague Spring Festival of 1990.

One comment

[…] Reflecting on his Symphony No. 7, I said that Dvořák’s music was tied to a place. With these two symphonies, I think it’s fair to say that the music is even more evocative of place. […]

by Symphony Studies Nos. 51 & 52 | Dvořák No. 8 & 9 « on 3 August 2016 at 7:24 am. #