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symphony no. 4

COMPOSED 1 January - 26 March 1874 (revisions 1887, 1888)
3rd movement: 25 May 1874, Prague
complete symphony: 6 April 1892, Prague
25 May 1874: conductor Bedrich Smetana;
6 April 1892: National Theatre Orchestra, conductor Antonin Dvorak
FIRST EDITION Simrock, 1912, Berlin
MAIN KEY D minor
INSTRUMENTATION 2 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets,
3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, harp, violins, violas, cellos, double basses
1. Allegro
2. Andante sostenuto e molto cantabile
3. Allegro feroce
4. Allegro con brio
DURATION approx. 39 min.

     title page of the score   

general characteristics

Late 1873 and early 1874 saw a turning point in the development of Dvorak’s musical expression. After a period of major influence from the German Neo-Romantics, Dvorak’s distinctive compositional style came into its own, characterised by a departure from his “unending” melodies in favour of more concise and more periodic thematic treatment, and a more conscientious selection of musical material and its formal arrangement within the individual movements. The composer’s instrumentation was also no longer the dense Wagnerian score, adopting a simpler yet more vibrant expression and clearer sound. The first representative of this period is Symphony No. 4 in D minor. In view of the fact that the work is attributed the same key as the seventh symphony, the Fourth is sometimes given the subtitle “Little”, to distinguish it from the heroic “Great” seventh symphony.

formal structure and content

That Dvorak had made considerable progress in his formal treatment of extensive tracts of music is evident particularly in both outer movements, the first of which is written in sonata form, while the fourth combines sonata form with rondo. Both movements are distinctive for their brisk, energetic spirit and they also introduce a typical trait of Dvorak’s later mature works: the art of contrast, here represented by the disparate character of the first and second subjects. The second movement, Andante sostenuto e molto cantabile, is chronologically the first independent variation movement in Dvorak’s oeuvre. Its uniquely compelling theme is sometimes said to be inspired by Wagner’s Tannhauser, which is certainly reflected, among others, in the unusual, richly modulating harmonies. The individual variations – five in total – flow smoothly and naturally, one from the another, giving the impression of a single, integral piece of music. The scherzo movement in clearly arranged A-B-A form introduces a highly rhythmical theme in the outer sections which Dvorak later used for the middle part of the piano composition From Troubled Times (from the cycle From the Bohemian Forest). The trio somewhat resembles a march, approaching from the distance and receding once again.

score of the 3rd movement

premiere and reception

The symphony was completed in March 1874 and, by 25 May, its third movement was already included in a concert programme at the New Town Theatre, conducted by Bedrich Smetana. According to a critic writing for the magazine Dalibor, the music “enjoyed a very enthusiastic reception. [...] If we were permitted to judge the entire symphony based upon this part alone, we would not wish for anything else, but that the work be performed in its entirety, as soon as possible.” However, it was eighteen years before audiences would hear the complete work, on 6 April 1892, performed by the National Theatre Orchestra and conducted by the composer himself. This event was one of the “farewell” concerts Dvorak organised before his departure for the United States. Soon after finishing the symphony Dvorak submitted its score (together with his third symphony and other works) with his application for a state scholarship, which he was ultimately granted.